“What Facebook wants is 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 Youtube or Khan Academy, or sell their produce on a commodity market, or even search for a job on Naukri.”
– Mahesh Murthy, net-neutrality activist
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 gatekeeper in determining what websites people can access was criticised for violating net neutrality. An Indian journalist, in his reply to Mark Zuckerberg’s article defending Internet.org in India, criticized Internet.org as “being just a Facebook proxy targeting India’s poor” as it provides restricted Internet access to Reliance Telecom’s subscribers in India.
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 petition by Facebook on top of their pages, and in the form of notification (of friends who have signed up the petition), without being 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 signed up via Facebook to support the online campaign of ‘Free Basics’ but want to reverse their decision, can do so in the web addresses 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. (Contd. on page 2)
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.
Now, imagine that there’s a new policy that could let a mobile company only offer us Facebook and nothing else on government spectrum. Not Google, not Naukri, not You Tube, no site we really need. But instead all we can have is Facebook, and a bunch of other sites, and that’s all we can ever use. That’s what Facebook wants to offer the poor of India who can afford a phone but not a net connection on it. Given that data packages cost as little as Rs. 20 a month while phones cost Rs. 2,000 and up. That what the net neutrality activists feel is wrong.
Mahesh Murthy, a prominent Mumbai based 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.
Delhi based Osama Manzar said, “Facebook is actually not the Internet. Because, even if I endorse hundreds of good things about Facebook, it is not something so critical that I cannot live without it. And I have no hesitation to say that for me and for millions who are connected to Facebook that we will not miss even one critical thing in our lives if we don’t have Facebook. But I cannot say the same for the Internet. I can for sure say that without the Internet we can be critically affected. It must be noted that the DNA of Facebook is that it is made by the masses and for the masses; if it is derived to control, acquire and exploit that privilege, it would automatically lead to its own undoing.”
As I compose this writeup, there are a bunch of protestors sitting under a tent erected on the road in Hyderabad 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. Started on 26th December, their protest will go on till 29th December. The protesters also tried to drive home the point free internet access to rural households was possible with alternative solutions through a device called ‘Freedom Box’. “By just spending around Rs. 50,000, we can connect a whole village and create a network through the magic box that we designed which acts like a router and has other facilities like free calling. With the amount spent by Facebook for promoting ‘Free Basics’, we can connect one third of the villages in the country. It is high time, the government puts a brake on this misleading campaign and take responsibility,” said M. Siddhartha, member of Swecha, Hyderabad chapter of Free Software Movement of India (FSMI), an active GLUG (GNU/Linux User Group).
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.
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.
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.
By : Ringo Pebam
(The writer is founder of Linux-Manipur (GNU/Linux Users’ Group of Manipur), he can be reached at [email protected] or facebook.com/ringo.pebam.)