By Ringo Pebam
Imagine that with Facebook’s “Free Basics” (formerly known as internet.org), our orange planters in Tamenglong, our farmers in Thoubal, can access only Facebook and couple of other websites, but not google.com, not e-pao.net, not kanglaonline.com, manipurtimes.com etc, just because Facebook does not want to allow the said websites to be accessed.
Net neutrality means that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. To put it in simple terms, anyone from anywhere around the world should be able to access or provide services and content on the internet without any discrimination.
Internet.org is a partnership between Facebook and six other companies (Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm) that planned to bring affordable access to selected Internet services to less developed countries. It was launched in August 2013, and faced a global backlash! Facebook’s role as a gatekeeper in determining what websites people can access was criticised for violating net neutrality.
Internet.org is now repackaged with a different name called “Free Basics”.
Facebook launched the “Free Basics” initiative in India in February this year by partnering with Reliance Communications. RCom offers the Free Basics service under a ‘Freenet’ button on mobile phones. It started with free access to select 33 websites across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa. This was subsequently increased to 80 websites.
Net neutrality is basically towards democracy, against monopoly, where Internet.org/ Free Basics is exactly opposite. Facebook have been at the receiving end from net neutrality supporters.
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has asked Reliance Communications to suspend its Free Basics service this month. Few weeks back, the TRAI had issued a consultation paper on differential pricing for data services, where it had asked if telecom operators should be allowed to have different pricing for accessing different websites, applications and platforms. TRAI said some service providers were offering differential data tariff with free or discounted tariffs to certain contents of certain websites, applications or platforms. TRAI has invited comments till 31st December 2015.
In the last few days, from billboards (in metro cities) to YouTube ads, from two-page newspaper ads (in national newspapers), to ‘Send a Mail to TRAI to Save Free Basics’ campaign where they ask Facebook users to send signed emails to the TRAI in support of the campaign., Mark Zuckerberg & Co. have been aggressively trying to get their message of ‘Free Basics’ across to people.
Facebook users were repeatedly shown a misleading messages and notifications in the last few days. Facebook users were greeted with a message: “Act Now to Save Free Basics in India. Send a message to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and tell them you support Free Basics in India.”, they received “notifications” from friends: “sending messages to TRAI about Free Basics.”, but they were not told both sides of the story, and thinking they were doing something for a noble cause, and not to further Facebook’s business strategy, many have clicked ‘yes’ and submitted. Later many realized that they were conned into doing have since said no. For all those who have clicked ‘yes’ in Facebook and submitted (to TRAI) their support for the online campaign of ‘Free Basics’, but want to reverse their decision, can do so in the web addressed given in the end of this writeup.
Facebook calls Free Basics “a service offered on mobile devices that provides free access to a set of useful websites on the internet”.
So, Facebook is going to decide what ‘useful websites’ are? Now, the question is, can one trust Facebook’s discretion? And more importantly, should one? After all, this would potentially decide what millions of users who get internet access for the first time will have access to.
The airwaves and wireless spectrum of India belong to us, the citizens of India. On our behalf, the government of India temporarily gives licenses to telecommunications companies under some terms and conditions. Those terms pushed for the development of the whole of India, including our poor. The telecom policies of India have so far produced over a billion connections, changing and improving all our lives. The basis for this has always our policies which have forced our mobile operators to offer a full and open internet, accessible by anybody. Many poorer countries look to us for inspiration on how to do things right. But Facebook has been spending millions of dollars to change our policies.
Mumbai based Mahesh Murthy, a prominent Net Neutrality activists said, “Yes, we net neutrality activists are opposed to Facebook’s attempt to disconnect Indians from the full internet. Yes, we are opposed to the digital apartheid they want to bring about, giving the poor only Facebook but denying them other sites. In Facebook’s ads, they’ve been claiming they want to bring “digital equality” when they’re actually bringing digital slavery or digital apartheid to our poor. Unlike the rest of us who are all digitally equal, being able to access the full and complete internet which has more than a billion sites on it, Facebook wants to offer our poor, our young and our future a few dozen sites, that’s all. We are happy to support any effort that brings the full and unfettered internet to as many Indians as possible, as cheaply as possible. This is not that effort.”
In a report published in the Guardian, Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who invented the internet, the world wide web in 1989, says that consumers should “just say no” to initiatives such as Facebook’s Free Basics (formerly known as Internet.org) because programs like that are not the full internet.
At the London Web We Want festival last year, Tim Berners-Lee had called for a bill of rights that would guarantee the independence of the internet and ensure users’ privacy; an internet version of the Magna Carta, the 13th century English charter credited with guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms.
According to the Guardian, the Web We Want campaign promotes five key principles for the future of the web: Freedom of expression online and offline, affordable internet access, protection of user data and privacy, a decentralised internet infrastructure, and net neutrality.
In Hyderabad for four days a bunch of protestors sitting under a tent erected on the road were opposing the ‘Free Basics’ initiative of Facebook. They are an unusual set of protestors consisting of youngsters armed with laptops and a good knowledge of the ways of the virtual world. “It is high time, the government puts a brake on this misleading campaign by Facebook and take responsibility,” said M. Siddhartha, member of Swecha, Hyderabad chapter of Free Software Movement of India (FSMI), an active GLUG (GNU/Linux Users’ Group).
Yesterday over 50 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc) faculty members have released a joint statement highlighting major flaws in Facebook’s controversial Free Basics program that offers people without the Internet free access to a handful of websites through mobile phones. Their Joint statement rejecting Facebook’s misleading and flawed ‘Free Basics’ proposal says:
Allowing a private entity
– to define for Indian Internet users what is ‘basic’,
– to control what content costs how much, and
– to have access to the personal content created and used by millions of Indians
is a lethal combination which will lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their own public utility, the Internet.
What Facebook is saying is this: allow the mobile companies using government-owned bandwidth to offer just Facebook and Facebook-chosen sites and nothing else, and let them grab the land or users they want.
What net-neutrality activists are telling our government is this: On our airwaves, make sure that every mobile carrier in India offers every person in India the full internet and not just some small corner of it chosen by Facebook. That’s it. No special Facebook landgrab on government property, our wireless spectrum.
If you agree with Net Neutrality, please sign the petition/ send-email to TRAI via http://www.SaveTheInternet.in or www.fsmi.in and tell TRAI that we need Net Neutrality, last date is 31st Dec 2015.
The Net Neutrality activists don’t have a hundred crores to spend. Please share their ideas of net-neutrality with as many people as possible. Your sharing can overcome any billionaire’s advertisement budget.
Please read and share the full text of the following write-ups:
From SaveTheInternet.in Team: http://tinyurl.com/Freebasicsfacts
From Mahesh Murthy: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/facebook-misleading-indians-its-full-page-ads-free-basics-murthy
From IIT and IISc Faculty members: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1iQ1F7-S4NCGqp1FyKiDcK2J1eV4VNqM2B1qC3O4OlfA/pub
(The writer is founder of Linux-Manipur (GNU/Linux Users’ Group of Manipur); he can be reached at email@example.com or facebook.com/ringo.pebam.)