#Asia Facebook is trying to con Indians with Free Basics


Entrepreneur and VC investor Mahesh Murthy lays it down as it is — Free Basics is basically ‘digital apartheid’ for India’s poor and we must all beware of it

Today, Facebook has placed ads around India that read “What net neutrality activists won’t tell you”.

I’m a net neutrality activist and I’m happy to tell you anything you’d like to know. In fact, we’re a small group, working unpaid, taking breaks from our regular jobs, and we’ve always been happy to tell you anything at all you wanted to know.

We don’t have a business axe to grind, we’re not working for Facebook’s rivals, and if anything, we’ve been part of Digital India far, far longer than Facebook has existed. We’re open to questioning.

Unlike Facebook, who tried to silently slide this thing through last year when it was called Internet.org, and then is spending about INR 100 crore (US$15 billion) on ads — a third of its India revenue? — to try and con us Indians this year again. This is after we’d worked hard to ban these kind of products, technically called “zero rating apps” last year. (Remember the million signature campaign last year? That was us.)

This Facebook ad spend doesn’t include the full-on Mark Zuckerberg love event put up for our Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he visited the US, aimed again at greasing the way for this Free Basics thing through our government. Well, it worked. I think TRAI (Indian telecom regulator) opened up this closed issue so Facebook could get another shot at pushing it through again.

And the ad spend is above and beyond all the other ads and messages it has put on your timeline asking you to save “the free Internet” etc. that you may have even clicked on.

I’ll take on each of the 10 points that Facebook says that we don’t tell you about in a bit. But first you should know why we’re making a fuss and going up against this billion dollar giant.

Also Read: [Podcast] India and the backlash against Internet.org

What’s it all about?

Simply put, it’s this: our airwaves and wireless spectrum belong to us, the citizens of India. The government of India temporarily licenses this on our behalf to telcos under some terms and conditions, and those terms have always pushed for the development of all of India, including our poor.

In fact, India’s telecom policies so far have produced a minor miracle, with over a billion connections in our country changing and improving all our lives. The basis for this has always been 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.

It is because of these policies that you probably are reading this on the mobile Internet, maybe even on Facebook on your phone. But Facebook has been spending millions of dollars to change our policies.

Imagine now that there’s a new policy that could let a mobile company only offer you Facebook and nothing else on government spectrum? Not Google, not Naukri, not YouTube, no site you really need. But instead all you can have is Facebook, and a bunch of other teeny tiny sites, and that’s all you can ever use.

From digital equality to digital slavery

That’s what Facebook wants to offer the poor of India who can afford a phone but not the net connection on it. Given that data packages cost as little as INR 20 (US$0.301) a month while phones cost INR 2,000 (US$30.14) and up, we think the thesis itself is flawed, and the company is using it to justify a large Internet user landgrab, but let’s roll with it for a moment.

What Facebook wants is that our less fortunate brothers and sisters should be able to poke each other and play Candy Crush, but not be able to look up a fact on Google, or learn something on Khan Academy or sell their produce on a commodity market or even search for a job on Naukri.

Also Read: Op-ed: Don’t let net neutrality die in India

For an analogy, people need a balanced diet of proteins, fat, carbs, vitamins and minerals and the government has a distribution system called Sahakari Bhandars to get these to us. Facebook wants to use our government system to sell only its branded cocaine and nothing else, on special shops, to people who can’t access any other shop.

In its ads, it has been claiming it wants to bring “digital equality” when it is 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  generations a few dozen sites, that’s all.

Internet.org was the earlier attempt at doing this. We’d pointed out that even the name was a lie, as it was neither the Internet that was offered, nor was it done on a non-profit basis that dot orgs typically use. So Facebook has changed the name to Free Basics and has come back to try shove it down our throats again. Same poison, new bottle but with a big ad campaign.

The gist of the tussle 

What we’re 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 as chosen by Facebook. That’s it. No special Facebook landgrab on government property — our wireless spectrum.

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.

Facebook says it is doing this out of some charitable aim to get more of India online. (As though spending a large portion of your India revenues on full page ads pushing a so-called charity is apparently charity.) It’s obviously business.

We’ve responded saying: “We love your idea of data for charity, but if you really mean to do charity then offer something that is the entire internet to people, not just your chosen sites. Like, say 500MB a month free to every Indian”. It can, but no, it won’t do that. It wants to use our government’s bandwidth to get our poor using only Facebook with no other real option in sight.

The counterargument

Now to counter the “10 clarifications about Facebook Free Basics” that we ‘activists’ have apparently hidden from you.

1. “Free Basics is open to any carrier.” Sure it is. We never said it wasn’t. An irrelevant point.

2. “We don’t charge anyone for Free Basics.” Sure we all know that. We never said it charged. Even more irrelevant.

3. “We don’t pay for the data consumed in Free Basics.” We don’t say it does. Misleading again. Facebook doesn’t pay operators for the data to get free sign ups for Facebook — but it spends a huge sum of money (seen those Reliance Free Net ads?) on marketing that drives customers to these operators. Either way, there’s a gain for the operator. Why pay in cash when you can pay in ads?

Also Read: The peaks and valleys of Internet.org

4. “Any developer can have their content on Free Basics.” Who said they can’t? But the big sites don’t. They don’t want Facebook to own their customers, and they don’t want Facebook to snoop on their customer data, because all traffic goes via Facebook servers.

Data is cheap enough in India and eventually everybody will be on the full and open Internet, given time. Or our government could offer a neutral and free Internet service to its citizens. There are other solutions to getting the poor online. Selling our people to Facebook doesn’t need to be one.

5. “Nearly 800 developers have signed their support for Free Basics.” We never said they didn’t. Many, many more haven’t, so irrelevant.

6. “It is not a walled garden, 40 per cent of our users go on to access the full Internet within 30 days.” Which means 60 per cent of the users are stuck in Facebook jail. Why should even one Indian citizen be denied access? The Internet should be open for all our people, or the net should be neutral as we say, especially on public property, which the wireless spectrum is.

7. “Free Basics is growing and popular in 36 countries, which have welcomed the programme with open arms and seen enormous benefits.” This is a lie. This scam may have been pushed through in poor, mostly helpless African nations who have no experience of anything better, like we have, and who have no ‘activists’ like us who tell their governments they’re raising a generation of deprived children with no access to the real Internet.

Also, tellingly, the more online-progressive countries like Japan, Norway, Finland, Estonia and Netherlands have outright banned programmes such as Free Basics. With your help, and 12 lakh emails to TRAI last year, we’d helped to work towards a ban for it in India too — but Facebook has since spent a large amount of cash in ads, lobbying, diplomacy and PR to try to get it unbanned here. It has managed to re-open a closed issue, again. With your help, we’d like to re-shut it.

More to the point, this programme, call it digital apartheid if you will, has been roundly condemned by experts ranging from Tim Berners-Lee, the gentleman who invented the worldwide web, to PhD researchers to civil society officials working in the field, globally.

The fact that Tanzania didn’t know how to say no to Facebook doesn’t mean India has to say yes. In fact, we hope that India saying no to this digital apartheid will inspire the African and other poor nations to kick out this evil programme that serves no one but Facebook at the government’s expense.

8. “In a recent representative poll, 86 per cent of Indians supported Free Basics.” Guess what? If you’ve ever clicked “yes” on any misleading poll by Facebook apparently asking you to support “connecting India” or “free Internet”, then you too apparently voted for it. It never brought you both sides of the story, to make a fair decision.

9. “3.2 million people have petitioned TRAI in support of Free Basics.” Let’s again say it for what it is: 3.2 million people out of Facebook’s base of 130 million people who were repeatedly shown a misleading petition by Facebook on top of their pages clicked yes and submitted it — without being told both sides of the story. They thought they were doing something for a noble cause, and not furthering Facebook’s business strategy. A large number of them, shocked at realising what they were conned into doing, have since said no.

10. “There are no ads in the version of Facebook on Free Basics. Facebook produces no revenue. We are doing this to connect India and the benefits to do so are clear.” First, the unintentional lie. Facebook does produce revenue, about INR 12,000 crores (US$18 trillion) worth globally. Then the intentional half-truth: It may not produce revenues from this Free Basics yet because the current version of Facebook on it has no ads yet.

(This lie has been caught too! Update on December 28: Chris Daniels of Facebook explicitly says the company reserves the right to have ads on Facebook Free Basics in the future)

If Facebook has spent this enormous amount and a large chunk of its current Indian revenue kissing up to our politicians and telling our citizens it wants to do charity, then there absolutely will be a monetary payoff. If a product is free then the user is the item being sold.

Also Read: Would I invest in Mark Zuckerberg too?

Forget the lies about “wanting to connect India” – if it really did, it would offer the open and full Internet to everybody for free. It can, easily, but it has repeatedly declined to do so, saying first the poor person has to sign up for Facebook and then a few scraggly sites will also be shown to them.

The real reason is something it has never denied: rivalry with Google and its questionable stock price. We are no apologists for Google, but this might interest you:

Both companies have 1.5 billion users, but Google makes INR 70,000 crores (US$105 trillion) while Facebook makes less than one-fifth as revenue. In other words, for every new user that comes on the Internet, Facebook makes INR 8 (US$0.12), while Google makes around INR 48 (US$0.72).

Facebook’s stock is valued at a much higher multiple than Google, but people have begun to ask why it deserves this valuation. With no reason to support the stratospheric price, it will fall.

For Facebook to have a chance to keep the stock price high, and to keep Zuckerberg and wife as rich as they are, it needs to find new users who sign up for Facebook, but at the same time do not use Google. Enter this strategy: A programme to offer Facebook but not Google at the mass level.

Who is outside the first 1.5 billion people? Mostly people in India and China. Facebook is banned in China. So who becomes essential to Mark Zuckerberg’s balance sheet? Us, Indians. What’s a hundred crores of ad spend, against tens of thousands crores of valuation?

Now you have a second view of what’s happening. A view, it has never denied.

By the way, there is no NGO subsidiary or separate CSR effort at Facebook that runs Free Basics. It’s part of the main business unit.

So let’s sum it up

Yes, we net neutrality activists are opposed to Facebook’s attempt to disconnect the majority of the Indians from the full Internet. Yes, we are opposed to the digital apartheid it wants to bring about, giving the poor only Facebook but denying them other sites.

And yes, we’ll be happy if it just gave free data, without terms and conditions — after all, it’s our wireless network it wants to offer the service on. It has to work for us, the people of India, not just for the owner of Facebook.

There are many other reasons why Facebook Free Basics is bad. It’s bad for entrepreneurs – your business cannot be discovered by these new potential users on the Internet till you advertise on Facebook. The same goes for big businesses.

Also, if Facebook is allowed to get away with this then every other company will offer its own “Free Basics” with other sites and we will grow up as a fractured country, unable to speak with each other because we are all on different, unconnected micro-networks.

The Internet has been the biggest revolution of our times. The breadth and width of it allowed a Zuckerberg to become the businessman he is. It is tragic that he is pushing for a micro network outside the Internet where a future Zuckerberg can never realise his potential. It’s imperialism and the East India Company all over again. Under the lie of “digital equality”.

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.

Also Read: People say I built Facebook…that’s not true: Mark Zuckerberg

We have a petition here.

We don’t have a hundred crores to spend. All we ask is that you consider this view, decide for yourself what’s best for our country, and see if you are inclined to agree with us. If you are, please sign the petition above, and share this with as many people as possible.

Your sharing can overcome any billionaire’s ad budget.

Thank you.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn. 

The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, please send us an email at writers[at]e27[dot]co

Image Credit: Alexander Mak/Shutterstock

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