Past few days we have been bombarded with the ads about Free Basics from facebook, stirring up the debate about Net Neutrality. Before getting into the debate of "Is free basics good for india" let's understand what is "Net Neutrality" and "Free basics".
Free Basics : Quoting facebook, "Free Basics is a service that allows people to access a range of basic internet services for free". Facebook also started an initiative called internet.org a year back and Free basics is a program within that initiative.
Net Neutrality : The basic principle of net neutrality is that all the content on the internet is equal. Internet service providers (ISP's) and Governments should treat all the data same irrespective of content, site, platform or the applications. This is the reason why internet is such a vibrant place, the reason today facebook, google or any other great services exist and its been a hub for innovation for decades.
Incidently facebook supports net neutrality, but some how it fails to see that it is violating the "Net Neutrality" principle with "Free Basics".
How Free Basics is violating the Net Neutrality principle?
For starters, Free Basics provides few selected services for free to the end users. Facebook has a tie up with reliance telecom, which is 6th largest service provider in india. If you are on any other network provider you cannot access the free basics but facebook's rationale for this is, any ISP's can enroll for "Free Basics". So let's assume facebook is going to onboard atleast top 10 ISP's in India, then the problem is "services" that free basics offers, Free basics picks and chooses the services (websites or apps) users can browse, giving the immense power to facebook. To be fair facebook also states, any app or website can be a part of freebasics offering but forces them to conform to its technical and participation guidelines which stands against every fibre of net neutrality. Facebook (and telco's) gets to decide what is good for the end user or what user should browse instead of letting users decide.
We might be poor, that doesn't give you a right to choose what we want to browse on internet.
In one of Mr. Mark Zuckerberg's interview, he narrated the story of Mr. Srinivasa Ramanujan, answering the question "who is his favourite scientist?", "He got one math textbook and that was enough for him to recreate the whole of modern mathematics and push the field forward. The question we ask is what would have happened if he had access to the whole Internet? How many other Ramanujans are out there without access to even one book? That is why it is important that we get the debate right in India". That statement is pretty well thought, the problem is what if that book Ramanujan found is on the sites which are not part of "Free Basics" ??. This is the same story with all other free services like weather, access to doctors or medicines, access to books etc.
To put it in simple words, we cannot have a gate keeper for the internet, not facebook, not government, not telco's. Internet is free and open, it shall be free and open for coming centuries.
If facebook is really serious about connecting Indians, they can adopt alternatives instead of putting a filter over what kind of content user is going to browse, they can put a cap over how much data user can use by providing few hundred MB's of data monthly free. This intern allows user to choose from more than a billion of websites. This will be difficult for facebook to monetise though, this could be one of the reason why facebook adopted the current model.