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Free Basics or Net Neutrality

It seemed only a couple of months ago the youth and digital population of India was raging over Reliance’s attempt to breach net neutrality in India. Petitions were sent out and protests were made in an attempt to maintain net neutrality in the country. Yet somehow, TRAI got nearly 18 lakh mails in favour of free basics, and only 5 lakh supporting net neutrality. How did this happen?

First, a little background information to those who are completely ignorant of the relation between the two. Free Basics, or internet.org is an initiative by Facebook and Reliance Communications to offer free Internet to the underprivileged of India. As noble as it may sound, it is the perfect way for the giant (Facebook) to tap into a fresh and completely unexplored market when it comes to digital media. However, providing Internet for free on a limited number of websites and applications, through a specific provider, breaches net neutrality. Net neutrality means that no matter which service provider you use, you pay for a data pack, which allows you to access all websites and applications allowed and available in your country. Without net neutrality, you would need separate data packs for your WhatsApp, Facebook, Gmail, and so on.

Here’s what went wrong: Facebook got sneaky. The social media giant launched an aggressive campaign flooding our TV ad space, billboards, newspapers, in an attempt to show that Free Basics was for the poor and underprivileged. When this did not work, they decided to play on the ignorant and lazy. Every time you logged into Facebook, a pop-up was displayed on the upper right hand corner, asking you to save or support ‘Free Basics’. Not only that, Facebook also began sending notifications to inform users that one or many of their friends have allowed Facebook to send a message to TRAI on their behalf, supporting Free Basics in India. Net Neutrality, in stark contrast, meant that you had to go to the website, the submissions age, and then send the mail. More work for the lazy.

Here’s the text of the letter that shows up on Facebook and allows Facebook to send to TRAI on your behalf:

To the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India,  I support digital equality for India.   Free Basics provides free access to essential internet services like communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and more. It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile operators.  With 1 billion Indian people not yet connected, shutting down Free Basics would hurt our country’s most vulnerable people.   I support Free Basics – and digital equality for India.  Thank you. 

Well played Facebook. You have targeted your own people very cleverly, knowing that they will not hesitate to do something made to sound noble and as easy as a click of a button. Not only did you play the “Your friends are doing it too” card, but also presented your  slightly ignorant users with half the information. Facebook asked their users to support Free Basics and digital equality without clearly explaining the issue. Neither was there any mention of differential pricing, while this round of TRAI consultation had specific queries on the same. We do not even know exactly how this text will be submitted from Facebook to TRAI. Many are arguing that this text was misleading and that these submissions via Facebook should not be taken into consideration. Many who have signed up for Free Basics without being fully aware of its implications on net neutrality.

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