Facebook, after facing criticism with its Internet.org, is again trying to lure mobile users from India with its Free Basics through its huge media campaign and trick to send automatic support email to TRAI
Over the past few weeks, there are full-blown multi-page advertisements in newspapers and hoardings about Facebook’s Free Basics. Unfortunately, if you felt that the Free Basics means free internet for connecting the ones who cannot afford net access in India, you are mistaken. In reality, it merely means breaking the fabric of the Internet: non-gated and open access.
Remember, Internet.org and the net neutrality issues that rocked earlier part of this year? Through Internet.org, the same Facebook along with some telecom operators was promising free access to sites and carrier they chose under the guise of digital inclusion. After a hue and cry, Internet.org took a backseat. But it looks like the same is being brought back as Free Basics by Facebook.
With Free Basics, Facebook is trying to be the regulator who decides which website or app will be part of it. Only the website or apps, which Facebook decides to be part of Free Basics, will be available as Internet to users. This is completely opposite to how the Internet was created and exists today. The internet has grown by leaps and bounds because it has remained agnostic to the media and content consumed by its customers across the network. This unique property of the internet was first described by Prof Tim Wu as net-neutrality. Both Internet.org and Free Basics have same motive, to limit the access to internet under the guise of ‘free’ label.
At that time, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, too urged people to oppose Internet.org from Facebook. Berners-Lee also warned about attempts to improve internet access around the world by offering cut-down versions of the web, such as Facebook’s Internet.org project. Users should “just say no” to such proposals, he was quoted in The Guardian.
India is currently Facebook’s second-biggest market after the US with 130 million users, and many net neutrality advocates believe that its campaign is another example of how the company is misusing its size and influence to form the opinions of Internet users in emerging economies, says a report from TechCrunch
. “Free Basics, which became available throughout India last month, is a program by Facebook initiative Internet.org to provide basic Internet services, like search, Wikipedia, health information, and weather updates, for free to all users. While it sounds altruistic, Free Basics has the potential to drive reams of traffic to sites from certain providers (including Facebook) at the expense of others, which violates the principles of net neutrality. The TRAI plans to hold a public hearing on net neutrality next month,” the report says.
Facebook motives are foggy
If the real motive is to get many users in India to use the Internet, then there are a few questions that beg to be answered.
Why only Facebook and a few other websites/ apps would be accessible and why not the entire internet?
Why Facebook and the operators are acting as the regulator and would be deciding as to who is part of Free Basics and who isn't?
What is the guarantee that they would not act to the detriment of others?
Desperate Attempts to lure users
Mobile users in India, who would have logged into their Facebook account during the past one week, may have seen a notification message “Act Now to Save Free Basics in India”. By asking users submit this form, the response is then sent to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Several users reported on Twitter that despite that they did not submit the form and were merely scrolling the content, a confirmation of their support towards Free Basics was sent automatically. Moreover, there is no way to change the response sent by Facebook to TRAI.
It also came to light that several users based outside India, primarily in the US reported seeing the notification message to support Free Basics. Facebook later responded to the website Recode
that it was by accident.
It appears strategically, Facebook’s propaganda is to persuade users in India to push for Free Basics by portraying altruistic motives and in return, gain user base in India who are not using the Internet yet.
TRAI tells Reliance Communication to put Free Basics on hold
Following directions from TRAI, Anil Ambani-led Reliance Communications (RCOM) has decided to put on hold the commercial launch of Free Basics. "As directed by TRAI, the commercial launch of Free Basics has been kept in abeyance, till they consider all details and convey a specific approval," a Reliance Communications spokesperson
said. RCOM is the only telecom service provider offering Free Basics in India.
According to advertisements in the media, "Free Basics by Facebook is a first step to connecting one billion Indians to jobs, education, and opportunities online, and ultimately a better future. But Free Basics is at risk of being banned, slowing progress towards digital equality in India." Also, it is not clear as to how multi-page advertisements in The Economic Times help Free Basics reach the poorest sections of the Indian population.
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