The launch of Facebook’s Free Basics, which is the culmination of a dream to provide free internet access to the poorest communities around the world was supposed to be a landmark event. But critics in India see everything bad about the plan. The criticisms of Free Basic from the sub-continent is so loud and strident that the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, is now red in the face from anger and irritation at the ungrateful critics.
What are the issues involved? Obviously, free Internet should be a good thing, right? For the uninformed, the answer is as clear as daylight on a warm spring morning. The critics insist things are not so clear cut.
In a nutshell, Free Basics (an offshoot of the internet.org program) works like this: to use the service, users must download the Free Basics app to their mobile device. Once downloaded, you get free access to about thirty or so sites including Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Wikipedia and BBC news. To access other sites not part of the app, you must pay or buy data from your service provider. The Free Basics service works in conjunction with some service providers who have signed up to the program.
The free Basic service, accordind to Access Now, is not a good idea because it mostly provides limited free Internet to poor people. The argument from them is that it is not fair to the poor to offer them just a limited access to the Internet while access to millions of other sites are blocked. Also, according to critics, websites, especially small websites, that are not part of the program are at a disadvantage because the poor won’t be bothered to open these non-free sites. This would make it very difficult for the smaller sites to compete or even survive.
The combined criticism of the service was so severe that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ordered the local service provider, Reliance, to temporarily suspend the Free Basics service on its network. This move was ostensibly for TRAI to address net neutrality concerns. A final decision on the issue would be delivered by this month. Hopefully.
In response to the move by TRAI, Facebook has now gone on the offensive by taking out full page ads in prominent Indian newspapers. As for Zuckerberg, he penned a blog post in The Times of India where he basically lambasted the critics of Free Basics saying:
‘In every society, there are certain basic services that are so important for people’s wellbeing that we expect everyone to be able to access them freely.
We have collections of free basic books. They’re called libraries. They don’t contain every book, but they still provide a world of good.
We have free basic healthcare. Public hospitals don’t offer every treatment, but they still save lives.
We have free basic education. Every child deserves to go to school.
And in the 21st century, everyone also deserves access to the tools and information that can help them to achieve all those other public services, and all their fundamental social and economic rights.
That’s why everyone also deserves access to free basic internet services.
We know that when people have access to the internet they also get access to jobs, education, healthcare, communication. We know that for every 10 people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty. We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet.’
And as if addressing the critics directly he had this to say:
‘If we accept that everyone deserves access to the internet, then we must surely support free basic internet services. That’s why more than 30 countries have recognized Free Basics as a program consistent with net neutrality and good for consumers.
Who could possibly be against this?
Surprisingly, over the last year there’s been a big debate about this in India.
Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims – even if that means leaving behind a billion people.
Instead of recognizing the fact that Free Basics is opening up the whole internet, they continue to claim – falsely – that this will make the internet more like a walled garden.’
Big, strong compelling words from Zukerberg. But the last word still remains with TRAI.