India’s Gatekeepers

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The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seen here with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has not made a decision on whether Free Basics can be made operational. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Facebook’s battle for primacy in India has its detractors

BY Padmaparna Ghosh

Since mid-December, Indian newspapers have sported full-page advertisements with a joyous photo of Ganesh, his wife and two children. Ganesh, a farmer in an undisclosed part of India, is the face of a Facebook initiative called Free Basics, which aims to provide free—but restricted—Internet access to more than a billion Indians. But behind Ganesh’s toothy grin is a country that is proving to be Facebook’s hardest sell on this flagship program.

Facebook officially rolled out Free Basics—previously, and grandly, named Internet.org—last February, but criticism of the program built gradually over the year. Last month, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) banned the application temporarily, until it figures out its position. India’s decision on this contentious issue will set a precedent for other developing countries that have, or will have, a version of Free Basics. By January 7, when the deadline for public consultations on the issue lapsed, TRAI had received a record 2.4 million submissions.

The backlash against Facebook’s platform has revolved around the philosophy of net neutrality and the competitive advantage that such a platform can give Facebook and its Internet Service Provider (ISP) in a country that is mostly offline. In India, Facebook launched Internet.org with Reliance Communications, one of India’s largest telecom companies, as its ISP. Free Basics offers a small slice of the Internet for free, rather than the whole universe of the web; web developers must opt-in to the platform to participate. Activists worry over the disproportionate control that Facebook exercises over the content it chooses for the Free Basics platform.

“The Internet isn’t about just consuming content, it’s also about creating it,” Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of MediaNama, a website that provides analysis on the Indian telecommunications industry told Newsweek Middle East. Pahwa has been one of the sharpest critics of Free Basics; on Twitter, he uses the hashtag #SaveTheInternet as his clarion call to net neutrality. “Imagine there’s a student in Maharashtra who makes an app beneficial to villagers. Will he then have to apply for approval?

What you are doing is creating little islands that you own, and trying to contain people on these islands. The Internet is global—marketplace and commons. We have to allow people and ensure people have access to everything.”

Opponents of Free Basics have compared it to a “walled garden.” Pahwa points out that Internet.org’s terms and conditions say that Facebook will take 8-10 weeks to get back to a developer, indicating a certain discretion in permitting websites onto the platform. This is no plug-and-play affair.

Facebook insists that it will not use these guidelines to reject developers. “Absolutely not. Facebook has never rejected an application that met basic technical guidelines,” Chris Daniels, the vice-president of Internet.org, told Newsweek Middle East. “In addition, the average time it takes to get on the platform is closer to three weeks. The guidelines exist to optimize for performance on older phones and slower network connections.”

Some non-technical restrictions may yet prove dangerous, however, as Pranesh Prakash, the policy director at the Center for Internet and Society, a non-profit that analyses Internet and digital technologies, noted. One of the restrictions on Free Basics is that audio streaming is allowed at low bitrates, but not Voice Over IP.” Voice calls over Skype and WhatsApp, for instance, don’t make it into Free Basics’ range of services—a feature that conveniently helps Reliance, which makes much of its money through regular telephone calls.

Despite the criticism, Free Basics has found support among some entrepreneurs. The platform has more than 100 services on it already: search engines for jobs, news feeds and health portals, for instance. Some internet giants, such as Flipkart, an online marketplace and PayTM, a mobile wallet, have stayed off Free Basics, wary of its complexities. Even in this restricted form, Prakash believes, Free Basics could serve as a gateway to the wider Internet, moving people from the “walled garden” into the infinitude of the web.

“The main beneficiaries will be those who have money to buy data but haven’t experienced the benefits of internet,” Prakash said. “Free Basics can show them that value. Given that the ISP is subsidizing it, Free Basics works out for them only if they get paying customers—if people see value in it and move on to full internet. The main revenue for ISPs will be data. Reliance will stop funding Free Basics if it doesn’t earn from it. It isn’t a charity.”

Facebook has found this to be true in the past. “Free Basics usage has shown that more than half of the people who come online because of Free Basics are paying for data and accessing the internet within the first 30 days,” Daniels said. “In India, after the first 30 days, there are eight times more people who have paid for and are using full internet than those who continue only using Free Basics.” These numbers, however, have inspired doubt, because Facebook has not released the raw data. “From the sound of it, it’s encouraging, but I won’t trust these figures till I know how they’ve calculated this,” Prakash said.

Facebook isn’t alone in its sprint to connect billions of people to the internet. From Google to Samsung to Oneweb, companies are trying to find quick, innovative ways—think low-orbit satellites or atmospheric balloons—of connecting people.

Facebook itself is experimenting with lasers, drones and satellites. “These methods aren’t based on carriers. They can be offered cheaply,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford Law School. “By all indications, the technology is in the lab now. It might take just $2 billion to change the world. I’ve been speaking to AT&T in the U.S. They’re terrified of it, and they know it will come. Facebook is trying to jump the gun and basically trying to grab all the users it can.”

India is a trove of potential users. A recent study found that the number of mobile internet users in India will double by 2017, to 300 million users. These users, say Free Basics’ critics, will generate data that is especially useful for companies like Facebook, which study behavior patterns to target customers. “It’s clearly a move to build a sort of zero-rated ecosystem where Facebook gets access to all the data,” Pahwa said. “Internet services are built on learning from such data. My question is: Why haven’t they tried neutral models?” He cited examples of such neutral models. Aircel, an Indian ISP, has begun providing full, free internet access at 64 kbps for the first three months, before prompting users to subscribe at higher speeds. The Mozilla Foundation runs a program with Grameenphone, a leading Bangladeshi telecommunications network, by which users get free data in exchange for watching an advertisement.

TRAI has said it will decide on the issue by the end of January. Prakash, for one, hopes that Free Basics is not banned. “If ISPs were offering low-speed full internet, then Free Basics wouldn’t have me shed a tear at all,” he said. “But when you’re getting access and it can benefit freedom of speech and expression, then why should that be banned in a liberal democracy that believes in free markets?”

Perhaps the only thing that both sides agree upon is that TRAI’s final decision—whichever way it goes—will shape similar debates in other countries. “India is ground zero for zero rating,” Pahwa said. “What India decides will be a huge influencer in this debate. People are watching us.”

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