Is Free Basics so evil?

Facebook’s Free Basics program is in the news for a long time now. But there is spike in activities of late due to an upcoming deadline from Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) seeking views on this initiative. While I was happy that someone is trying to provide basic internet services to majority of our country men and women, I did not realize the terms and conditions put forward by Facebook were this contentious. And that is when I started looking around for information on what the real issues are.. and more importantly, are these issues serious enough to block an entire initiative. Also, is Facebook the first company to exploit us this way?

I referred to 3 sources while working on this blog post and also heard some views on some TV News channels the other day.

  1. Article in Times Of India by Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah – A walled garden, there are better options
  2. An article from scroll.in – 10 things that are wrong with Free Basics
  3. Recent comments by eminent academicians – Note from IIT, IISc professors highlighting flaws in Free Basics
  4. Facebook’s own publication – Developer guide with technical details

The key concerns raised in #1, #2 and #3 articles, and resonating in the views of almost everyone who is opposed to Free Basics are:

  • Facebook decides the rules, now and in future
  • Data privacy of Indians compromised
  • Why not some other approach?
  • Facebook makes obscene profits, at the cost of Indian consumers

Personally, I agree with the concerns raised, but not to the extent that we should completely vote against such major initiatives. In real world, it is hard to call things as just black or white – there are a lot of grey areas. How many of us support the attitude of Congress Party when they block the passage of GST Bill due to 2 or 3 reasons? Every major initiative will have certain flaws (real or otherwise) that needs to be rectified as we move along – we just do not cut off a hand because one of the fingers caught some infection.

Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later

So, here are some views on the key concerns raised.

Website owners now have to comply with Facebook mandated regulations to make their content available. Rules can be changed by Facebook any time
  • Yes, this is possible. But lets look at the probability of it happening. Take the example of Mobile applications that today rely on rules set by Apple, Google and Windows. Chances are, these companies can also change rules in future. So, the risks faced from Facebook are similar to the ones from other Technology giants.WebsiteVariations
  • Secondly, the rules as defined by Facebook today seem to be fine, considering their customer facing goal. Free Basics is about enabling internet access to consumers on low 2G speeds and zero cost. So, it is
    only natural that such services/websites should be really bare bone to minimize the size of content transferred over wire.
  • A related concern from website owners is that they have to create a new version of their application just so that it can run on Facebook platform.
    As you can see is this sample picture, people today are already maintaining different versions (minor / major). Free Basics requires one more version, simple. Over a period of time, some platforms get deprecated due to lack of popular support. PalmOS, Symbian and many other such examples of platforms that were popular a decade back but not so much today.
Data privacy is compromised since Facebook has unhindered access to all websites on its platform
  • This is a valid concern and is applicable to a variety of internet based services we use today – Mail (Gmail, Yahoo), Documents (Google Docs), Cloud hosted applications (majority of Indian internet based companies host their application servers and data in warehouses, a.k.a Datacenters, that are located outside of India), Messaging (WhatsApp), Social networking (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn). Targeting Free Basics alone is not the correct thing to do.
  • Facebook anyway has categorically stated that they are NOT going to store/process customer information. Customer information is in total control of the websites that enroll on their platform.
  • Real concern I see here is the internet.org proxy through which entire traffic will get routed. This proxy is with Facebook. We should work with Facebook and ensure all proxies required to keep Free Basics running are located within India’s land borders.
There are other better ways of giving free internet, why only this approach?

Of course, there are other ways to give free internet. I referred to an article above from scroll.in where they mentioned 3 such options. While all 3 are good, they have some darker sides as well:

  • http://www.digit.in/general/gigatos-toll-free-internet-28094.html — Mobile application owners should register with this platform and sponsor the data usage cost of customer for using their Apps. Great idea but this also means that Application developers are now at the mercy of this new intermediary. Facebook is the intermediary in case of Freebasics.
  • http://www.medianama.com/2015/10/223-aircel-free-internet/ – Aircel has a free internet package which is a great idea. But this also means that only Aircel customers will benefit. One argument against Free Basics is that only their partnering operator stands to benefit (Reliance currently).
  • http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/info-tech/net-neutrality-mozilla-suggests-equal-rating/article7177532.ece  –  this article is on Net Neutrality, not to be confused with Free Basics. TRAI has a different proposal where certain application users were to pay more. Rational behind that is there are always certain applications which generate more traffic than others hence a differential tariff is required.
  • The Times Of India article proposes a simple Direct Benefit Transfer of data packages to end customers, at zero cost. This is an excellent idea. But again, I do not understand why this Facebook should drop the Free Basics program in favor of such DBT. Free Basics is not just about paying for end users internet usage cost. It is about creating an ecosystem of services that run on really low speed networks. This requires building a technology platform, maintaining it and continuous optimization.

Now, there is nothing wrong in any of the above approaches. Facebook chose an approach that they felt to be right based on their technology and financial strengths. All approaches have their own flaws, strengths and target consumers. They can all co exist.

Facebook is going to make lots of money by ripping off Indian consumers. It is free initially but we may end up paying lot more, later
  • Just like everything else in life, access to internet based services is also a zero sum game. For example, when our Government waives off the loan taken by farmers, it is “free” money to the farmers who lost their crop due to harsh weather conditions. But those funds came from tax payers pockets – someone pays, someone benefits.
  • Facebook spends 100s of millions of dollars every year to keep the website up and running. That cost is borne by the customers indirectly in the form of Advertisements. You and I work for companies and at the end of each month, expect our salaries to be paid. There is nothing wrong in that.
  • Facebook as a global company has to expand its customer base. Their next biggest market is with millions of people who are not yet on internet. And yes, they have to generate indirect revenue from Free Basics because someone got to pay.
  • Another concern is a free service like this will kill other websites that are not on the platform. This is again an exaggerated fear. Doordarshan has a group of free to air channels which provide content in all Indian languages, news, sports, entertainment and education. Most watched sporting events are telecast live irrespective of which channel acquired the rights. But still we have over 300+ private TV channels in India running with high profits. A product or service will not become popular simply because it is free – it has to create value for the customer. Success of Free Basics depends on their ability to provide wide spectrum of services on their platform, at manageable data speeds and finally, at zero cost to consumer.

Where do we go from here?

Looking at the way we are reacting to Free Basics, it is highly likely that TRAI will not give its nod. I wish we Indians move away from this attitude of banning things. We probably need a 100 programs like Free Basics to help millions of Indians deal with their economic, social and health related challenges in a dignified way. Taking extreme positions on matters of national importance will only lead us to a path where no decision will eventually get taken.

 

GST, Intolerance and now Free Basics. Reminds me of PM Modi’s speech in Parliament recently on how our Constitution came into effect. He very eloquently mentioned that in today’s India, it is not possible to approve such a Constitution because people will immediately start complaining about the font of text, some image that is religiously inappropriate or some text which is perceived to be offensive to some group.

Please free to leave your feedback. I probably misjudged certain facts and would love to correct myself or engage with you in a healthy discussion.

 

 

 

 

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