Free basics considered harmful!

I have been a passive observer in the ongoing debate about Free Basics and Net Neutrality until I came across this blog by Mark Zuckerberg. TOI, sadly, is a popular newspaper in this part of the world and the blog has the potential to influence  millions of people. Hence I felt that voices of dissent are essential which has led to this blog post.

For the uninitiated, Free Basics can be thought of as an app that you install on your smart phone that in turn, lets you access other apps like Facebook for free without having a data plan. Apart from Facebook itself, it lets you access some other services that are deemed to be essential like Bing and Accuweather.

In the blog post, Mark recites the story of a poor farmer who through Free Basics got access to accurate and timely weather information, and consequently yielded a good harvest. He argues that people who are arguing against this, are doing so without thinking about the consequences of not having access to internet on this poor farmer. He also claims that this whole thing isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests as there are no ads in Free Basics.

I am deeply skeptical about someone who offers help without asking for anything in return. I am even more skeptical if they sight hard to understand, but, good to hear philosophical reasons for doing so; especially if that someone is a for profit corporate organization. And there is good reason why you should also be skeptical about this too. Allow me to manufacture five scenarios that would illustrate the kind of power that this deal would give Facebook.

In the post internet world, access to people’s mind share is real money. If a billion users use Facebook regularly, telephone companies are going to want to be the ones through whom people access it. This gives Facebook enormous power over the telephone companies and also, through the fact that Facebook gets to decide what constitutes Free Basics, it also gives them enormous power over other companies. Let us imagine that we give into this Free Basics scheme and hundreds of millions of users use the service. That would give Facebook the power to do any of the following things.

  1. Facebook could demand that a corporate giant pay one million dollars to get included in free basics over its startup competitor.
  2. Facebook could demand that a mobile operator like Airtel pay one million dollars to be able to provide access to Free Basics.
  3. The mobile operator could in turn end up charging the regular customers more to offset the costs incurred due to Free Basics
  4. The mobile operator could in turn end up charging the Free Basics user more for other services like calls and SMS to offset the costs incurred due to Free Basics
  5. The government could demand that Facebook block access to certain content through a non transparent channel.

All of my arguments above are pure speculation. Facebook for all we know, may not even have a hidden agenda. But one has to remember the fact that Facebook is not a democratically elected organization. This means that the people who are directly impacted by its actions do not have the power to intervene if and when it turns evil. The public have zero insight into how Facebook gets to decide what should or should not go into Free basics and its monetary  impact, positive or otherwise. Changes like these at this scale are hard to undo. Hence it is of critical importance that they do not come into effect in the first place. Kindly take some time to urge TRAI to act against Free Basics. Oh! and regarding Mark’s claim about not showing any ads, Facebook’s real cash cow could well be its APIs and not Ads.

PS:  This is what Tim Berners Lee has to say about Free Basics. This guy unlike me must know that he’s talking about.

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