Who decides the basics of ‘Free Basics’?

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We all like stories. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told one of a soyabean farmer in Maharashtra who uses the company’s Free Basics platform to lead a better life. He was affirming the benefit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India dream for crores of rural poor in India.

There is no doubt that the country needs Digital India. However, it is also necessary to know what is possibly masked behind it.

The saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, confuse them.” A while ago, netizens across the country had united for the concept of net neutrality, which is essentially the principle that the users should have access to all content and applications on the internet, regardless of the source. The protest had also included Facebook’s internet. org, now renamed and repackaged as Free Basics, for breaching the concept.

The free usage facility to access about 50 sites including Facebook via Free Basics could eventually lead to a situation where the users will have to pay more money to the internet service provider to access sites that are not on the list. The entire exercise could end up helping Facebook much more than India.

“Any preference to any specific vendor or service provider could potentially have an impact of prejudicially impacting the Digital India program,” says Pawan Duggal, a Supreme Court advocate specialised in cyber law. “India has to be consciously careful that the program should not be hijacked by vested interests and that it should not be made the basis for unauthorised sending of data of Indians to outside the territorial boundaries.”

It is instructive to imagine what would have happened to Facebook itself if such a situation was already in place. The social media giant was once a startup by a bunch of young men out of college and they were offered a level playing field as they set out on their online venture.

Modi recently announced a ‘Start up India, Stand up India’ campaign to encourage more start up companies. Under an internet system violating net neutrality, if an online startup wants the users to check out their initiative, they will have to pay up and join a system such as Free Basics or risk standing alone because the users under Free Basics simply wont have access to it.

“The future of India’s startup ecosystem depends on the decisions we take today and the government needs to bat for the startups and not for the corporates,” says Ashish Sinha, a technology expert.

The same goes for many personal and community websites which do not have a system of monetisation. It is a dangerous kind of monopoly over the internet that Facebook could be aiming at.

An example of a non-monetised yet popular website is reddit.com. It allows free acess and millions of people engage in discussions on it every day. Reddit’s tagline of being ‘the front page of the internet’ could soon become just a memory if things are left to the will of the tech giants.

With search results filtered, every individual would lose their freedom to choose what to browse. The people will be forced to use what has been served and it will be an attack on individual freedom as it was when the government banned porn.

It is possible that the call of Facebook to users to change their display pictures in support of Digital India was a social experiment. It raised a furore in social media when it was discovered that the name of a class in the source code for the picture was named “_internetOrgProfilePicture_ prideAvatar”. Later in an official statement Facebook declared that the source code was a mistake and that there is no relation between Digital India and internet.org.

Digital India aims to give net access to all, however, if it comes at the cost of net neutrality, it will become a violation of personal freedom and fair competition.

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