We need to provide full Internet at prices people can afford, not privilege private platforms. This is where India’s regulatory system has to step in
The airwaves, the newspapers and even the online space are now saturated with a Rs. 100 crore campaign proclaiming that Internet connectivity for the Indian poor is a gift from Facebook which a few churlish net neutrality fundamentalists are opposing. In its campaign, Facebook is also using the generic phrase “free, basic Internet” interchangeably with “Free Basics”, the name it has given its private, proprietary platform. This is in blatant violation of Indian rules on advertising, which forbid generic words being used for brands and products. This is from a company which, in spite of having 125 million Indian subscribers, refuses to be sued in India, claiming to be an American company and therefore outside the purview of Indian law. Nor does it pay any tax in India.
The Free Basics platform is a mildly tweaked rehash of the controversial internet.org that Facebook had floated earlier. Facebook and Reliance, the sixth-largest mobile service provider in the country, have joined hands to offer it as a platform for free data services restricted to a few websites. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has stopped this service for now, pending its public consultation on the subject. Facebook’s campaign is essentially to influence the outcome of such a consultation.
Data as commodity
Evgeny Morozov, one of the most insightful commentators on technology, has written extensively on how Silicon Valley seeks to subvert the state, promising to give the people connectivity, transport and other facilities, if we only hand over our data to them. Instead of people demanding that the state provide access to various services — from drinking water to transport and communications — people are being led to believe that a few capitalists from Silicon Valley will provide all these services. We will have Internet connectivity instead of education, and Uber will provide private taxis, instead of public transport. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette, let the people have cake instead of bread. This is the Internet monopolies’ agenda of hidden and mass-scale privatisation of public services.
By accepting the Silicon Valley model of private services, we pay the Internet monopolies with our data, which can then be monetised. Personal data is the currency of the Internet economy. Data as commodity is the oil of the 21st century. Facebook and Google’s revenue model is based on monetising our personal data and selling it to advertisers. Facebook generates an estimated revenue of nearly $1 billion from its Indian subscribers, on which it pays no tax.
Free Basics is not free, basic Internet as its name appears to imply. It has a version of Facebook, and only a few other websites and services that are willing to partner Facebook’s proprietary platform.
Today, there are nearly 1 billion websites. If we consider that there are 3.5 billion users of the Internet, 1 out of 3.5 such users also offers content or services. The reason that the Internet has become such a powerful force for change in such a short time is precisely because anybody, anywhere, can connect to anybody else, not only to receive, but also to provide content. All that is required is that both sides have access to the Internet.
All this would stop if the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or telecom companies (telcos) are given the right to act as gatekeepers. This is what net neutrality is all about — no ISP or telco can decide what part of the Internet or which websites we can access. Tim Wu, the father of net neutrality, has written that keeping the two sides of the Internet free of gatekeepers is what has given a huge incentive for generating innovation and creating content. This is what has made the Internet, as a platform, so different from other mass communications platforms such as radio and television. Essentially, it has unleashed the creativity of the masses; and it is this creativity we see in the hundreds of millions of active websites.
Facebook’s ads and Mark Zuckerberg’s advertorials talk about education, health and other services being provided by Free Basics, without telling us how on earth we are going to access doctors and medicines through the Internet; or education. It forgets that while English is spoken by only about 12 per cent of the world’s population, 53 per cent of the Internet’s content is English. If Indians need to access education or health services, they need to access it in their languages, and not in English. And no education can succeed without teachers. The Internet is not a substitute for schools and colleges but only a complement, that too if material exists in the languages that the students understand. Similarly, health demands clinics, hospitals and doctors, not a few websites on a private Facebook platform.
Regulate price of data
While the Free Basics platform has connected only 15 million people in different parts of the world, in India, we have had 60 million people join the Internet using mobiles in the last 12 months alone. And this is in spite of the high cost of mobile data charges. There are 300 million mobile broadband users in the country, an increase fuelled by the falling price of smartphones.
In spite of this increase in connectivity, we have another 600 million mobile subscribers who need to be connected to the Internet. Instead of providing Facebook and its few partner websites and calling it “basic” Internet, we need to provide full Internet at prices that people can afford. This is where the regulatory system of the country has to step in. The main barrier to Internet connectivity is the high cost of data services in the country. If we use purchasing power parity as a basis, India has expensive data services compared to most countries. That is the main barrier to Internet penetration. Till now, TRAI has not regulated data tariffs. It is time it addresses the high price of data in the country and not let such prices lead to a completely truncated Internet for the poor.
There are various ways of providing free Internet, or cost-effective Internet, to the low-end subscribers. They could be provided some free data with their data connection, or get some free time slots when the traffic on the network is low. 2G data prices can and should be brought down drastically, as the telcos have already made their investments and recovered costs from the subscribers.
The danger of privileging a private platform such as Free Basics over a public Internet is that it introduces a new kind of digital divide among the people. A large fraction of those who will join such platforms may come to believe that Facebook is indeed the Internet. As Morozov writes, the digital divide today is “about those who can afford not to be stuck in the data clutches of Silicon Valley — counting on public money or their own capital to pay for connectivity — and those who are too poor to resist the tempting offers of Google and Facebook” (“Silicon Valley exploits time and space to extend the frontiers of capitalism”, The Guardian, Nov. 29, 2015). As he points out, the basic delusion Silicon Valley is nurturing is that the power divide will be bridged through Internet connectivity, no matter who provides it or in what form. This is not likely to happen through their platforms.
The British Empire was based on the control of the seas. Today, whoever controls the data oceans controls the global economy. Silicon Valley’s data grab is the new form of colonialism we are witnessing now.
Net neutrality is not an esoteric matter, the concern of only a few netizens. It is fundamental to the world, in which the Internet is a source of knowledge, a means of communication, an artery of commerce. Whoever controls access to the Internet will control our future. This is what the current battle over Facebook’s Free Basics is all about.
(Prabir Purkayastha is chairperson, Knowledge Commons, and vice-president, Free Software Movement of India.)