‘Free Basics’ is a Facebook initiative that aims to make the Internet available to India’s 1.2 billion population, by providing limited free access to services like news, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information. Supporters of this scheme believe that Free Basics could connect Indians even in the remotest of villages, but critics argue that the initiative violates Net Neutrality.
What’s your stance on the issue? Use these points to help you:
1. Internet Access
Some access is better than no access…
Of India’s 1.2 billion population, only 243 million access the Internet. Under the Free Basic initiative, users who can’t afford to pay for data services would finally have a taste of the Internet through limited website-access. And when they can afford to do so, these users may eventually graduate to use the entire Internet. Based on research, for 10 people connected to the Internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty. Therefore, some access is definitely better than no access.
…but “some access” is not all access
Although Free Basics provides free access to the Internet, there is no access to websites and resources that have not aligned with the initiative. For example, a rural village may get access to one banking website, but not to the hundreds of others. Free Basics would basically dictate what you see on the Internet instead of what you would want to see.
Giving you more (telecom operator) options…
If Free Basics is made available, then people may give up their existing data plans and opt for free Internet by subscribing to that telecom provider (in this case, Reliance). This will create competition amongst telecom companies, who will reduce their data rates, making it cheaper to access the entire Internet for the public in general. For instance, when Airtel Zero was launched, other telecom companies slashed their data prices too and the competition was fierce. With Free Basics, people will have a plethora of telecom options to choose from.
…but taking some of your (website) options away
Free Basics, with their selection of specific websites, may open up the possibility of other telecom providers also providing their consumers with cheaper and faster Internet, via their own basket of websites and apps. The money telecoms may lose from consumers in terms of data payment, they can make up for by charging websites and apps to get on their network. However, in this bargain, it is the consumer that loses out on the option of freely browsing the web.
Encouraging new ideas…
The Internet definitely expands one’s view of the world. Free Basics would boost development and entrepreneurship in India by allowing unconnected students to gain knowledge from the Internet and giving people access to newer and better employment opportunities.
Access to the Internet could even allow the startup culture to flourish as people will discover new ideas for business, build their business and independently generate income. Those living in poverty will finally have the means to pull themselves out of it.
…or actually discouraging them?
On the flip side, only those websites that are allowed to be a part of Free Basics would be pushed out to a wide audience and would have a higher chance of being successful as a result. For example, if a hypothetical start-up company, XYZ, was not allowed to be a part of Free Basics, they would not be as successful as their competitors on the program. It is almost hypocritical for Facebook to push their stand which is against the innovation of an open web, after benefiting from its openness in the last few years.
4. The Digital Divide
Overcoming the old digital divide…
Digital divide refers to the gap between those that have access to technology, and those that don’t. By giving users free access to elementary Internet services such as e-libraries, information regarding health, education and so on, Free Basics, in essence, tries to bridge this digital gap between the have and the have nots.
…or creating a new digital divide?
The danger of favouring a private platform such as Free Basics over a public Internet is that it introduces a new kind of digital divide among the people. Liberal internet access – a source of open knowledge and a means of communication – is fundamental to the world.
Whoever controls access to the Internet would essentially control how we utilise it too. The digital divide will transform from Internet haves and have nots to Internet providers (the new haves) and users (the new have nots). New users would get stuck on a separate and unequal path to Internet connectivity, which will serve to widen – not narrow – the digital divide.
Collecting your data…
With Free Basics, Facebook would basically have direct access to all your apps’ contents, profiles, personal details and data on all the websites affiliated with its initiative. All your sensitive information would pass through Facebooks’ servers, without any assurance of security.
…but that’s happening anyway.
Many arguments against Free Basics mainly rest on the shoulders of data collection and what Facebook will do with everyone’s data. But websites like Facebook and Google have already been collecting public data in order to analyse trends for years! This doesn’t stop the public from using their platforms.
On one hand, Free Basics would create a monopoly of a company over the entire Internet, but on the other, if Facebook is providing a low-cost solution to bring the Internet to people who have never had access to it, how can we stop them? Only time will tell whether Free Basics is a philanthropic effort to connect India to the world, or Facebook’s attempt to control and capitalize the Internet. Let’s hope it’s the former.