Are Facebook’s Free Basics for the developing world as great as they sound?

Rolling rebellion sparks in Seattle to defend Internet and stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Photo by Rick Barry/Broken Shade Photo, republished under Creative Commons license, BY 2.0)
Rolling rebellion sparks in Seattle to defend Internet and stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Photo by Rick Barry/Broken Shade Photo, republished under Creative Commons license, BY 2.0)

Earlier this month, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) made a bold step toward ensuring net neutrality in India. The organization released a 15-page PDF — the “Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations” — that effectively bans services such as Facebook’s Free Basics.

Free Basics is part of Facebook’s larger Internet.org initiative, which seeks to open the Internet to billions of people around the world. If you haven’t heard of Facebook’s Free Basics, or similar services such as Wikipedia Zero or Google Free Zone, there’s a good reason: these types of services are banned in the United States. Free Basics allows poor and low-income users to access certain apps without using their mobile data. By definition, favoring one app or service over another violates net neutrality laws, which dictate that all apps and websites should be treated equally by service providers. (If this sounds familiar, that’s because it was a really big deal in the United States last year).

By some estimates, India has the most Facebook users in the world, and one million people using Free Basics, and the move was seen as a huge win by some.

Mahesh Murthy, a prominent Indian venture capitalist, has been an outspoken adversary of Free Basics and other such services for years. In Murthy’s words, they amount to a kind of “economic racism,” where poor people are offered a pared down version of the Internet the rest of the world has full, unrestricted access to.

“It all seems to amount to economic racism – exploiting the poor in underdeveloped parts of the world to become your customers under the guise of some apparent charitable purpose. While offering them a shoddy, stunted version of the real thing,” Murthy says.

“As a colleague Vijay Shekhar Sharma of PayTM puts it: ‘It’s poor Internet for poor people.’”

But is that really the case?

What is ZR?

While it’s an obscure term in the United States, this specific pricing scheme — used almost exclusively in the developing world — is known as “zero-rated.” Zero-rating refers to the practice of offering free access to certain popular online services for customers of particular mobile networks. India’s decision to ban ZR underscores just how important, and just how contentious, the zero-rated debate has become. One billion people are expected to gain Internet access by 2017, and ZR services have been hailed by some as one way to get them all there.

Free Basics allowed Indian users who had certain mobile carriers to access Facebook and a suite of other apps that offered communication tools and information on news, maternal health, travel, local jobs and local government. The service has been billed not just as a way to access Facebook, but as a way for the world’s poor to achieve economic empowerment through the vast resource that is the Internet. If knowledge is power, then services like Free Basics offer a portal to the most powerful resource of all: knowledge.

“Connectivity is a human right. It cannot be a privilege for the rich and powerful,” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says in a Free Basics promotional video. “It needs to be something that everyone shares.”

A more connected future

Manu Joseph, Indian author, journalist and ZR advocate. (Photo by Андрей Романенко, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Manu Joseph, Indian author, journalist and ZR advocate. (Photo by Андрей Романенко, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As with many divisive issues, for every Free Basics hater there’s a die-hard advocate. In an article published in the New York Times on September, 16, 2015, Manu Joseph argued that Internet.org, the broad service that includes Free Basics, has given 100 million Indians access to dozens of websites in seven different languages. It’s a triumphant feat, especially for a country of 1.25 billion where 50 percent still do not have Internet access.

“It is an idea that can transform India,” he says.

Helani Galpaya, the CEO of LIRNEasia, raises another point: there is little evidence ZR causes any of the negative effects detractors claim. In fact, she says, ZR gets people online and gets them hungry for more, driving them to consume online content that they probably would have paid for had they known it existed (a point echoed by Zuckerberg in December 2015).

Essentially, Facebook isn’t maliciously shooting fish in a barrel. They’re just serving as the “gateway drug” to the Internet, which could be extremely beneficial to millions of people if they knew it existed.

It is a problem with the cost structure of data as a whole, and ZR happens to be a convenient trigger for much larger, more complex problems with Internet connectivity.

So the problem isn’t that Free Basics tricks people in believing Facebook is the whole Internet, or even that some services are being prioritized over others. The problem is that India has a connectivity problem, and services like Free Basics are simply a scapegoat.

In fact, Free Basics and similar offerings exist because data is expensive in developing countries, barring billions of people from full Internet access. It is a problem with the cost structure of data as a whole, and ZR happens to be a convenient trigger for much larger, more complex problems with Internet connectivity. And all of that isn’t to say Prime Minister Modi and the Indian government aren’t making huge strides in connecting citizens. According to a recent report by TRAI, India had a total of 131.49 million “broadband” connections at the end of Nov. 2015. It seems like a huge number — until you consider that’s only around 10 percent of the country’s total population.

Net neutrality arguments are right to advocate against ZR if the argument is being made in the United States. The FCC has made it clear that the Internet is to be kept an open and level playing field, which is great for people and companies fortunate enough to live in a country with ubiquitous Internet access.

But for the rest of the world, ZR offers a window, however small, into a boundless world of knowledge and connectivity. The societal benefits of prioritization far outweigh any moral high-horse concerns about where Internet access is coming from, and truthfully, net neutrality advocates should be happy that more people are coming online. It adds billions of potential supporters to their cause, which seeks a more free, more open and more accessible Internet for everyone.

As Galpaya says, by banning Free Basics, India is killing the goose before knowing if its eggs are golden.

An earlier version of this post was published in Flip the Media.

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