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These days, with so many voices on either side, Indians are discussing the net
neutrality over their cups of tea. Irrespective of whether the Telecom Regulatory
Authority of India (TRAI) eventually clears or not the Facebook initiative Free Basics; we
should be thankful to Mr Zuckerberg. Since but for his effort, we would have not realised
the significance of an open neutral internet, which has become so ubiquitous to our dayto-day lives.
Perhaps the most important reason for the indispensability of internet is its ability to
empower the ordinary people all around the globe, notwithstanding still about 60% of
global population is out of internet reach. And how much empowering the internet is?
Well, it is sufficient to watch the commercials of a particular telecom company to get the
idea (sic). On a deeper level, the internet (as we know it today) strengthens a liberal,
democratic and transparent world order. And most worryingly, these values are at stake
with the initiatives like the Free Basics or to be technically correct the zero rated
We all by now are aware of what the internet access with a powerful gatekeeper such as
the Facebook will be like. In such a restrained internet environment, our ability to
access the vast ocean of all kinds of information with nearly 1 billion websites will be
curtailed to the point of possible ineffectiveness. Also at stake is the utility of the
internet as an efficient medium of communication. For instance, Facebook does not
consider Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video are good for people who aspire to
leverage the benefit of the internet for a better future, and consequently such services
are not in the gift package of Free Basics designed by the Facebook.
The concept of monopoly has never resulted in an equalitarian progressive outcome. It
promotes an image of a benefactor for the monopolist while simultaneously reducing the
dignity and liberty of the user of the monopoly output. To be sure, Facebook has indeed
reflected this imbalanced relationship with its prospective unprivileged users of the Free
Basics in its 100 crore ad campaign. Closely related to it is the creation of a digital
divide. If we to trust Zuckerberg, for every ten persons connected to the internet, about
one person gets a new job and another one is lifted out from poverty. And it is anybodys
guess in which group most of the Free Basics users are likely to be found, because
without Google signing up as a partner of the Free Basics, even a Google search is not
possible on the so-called free platform.
As far as the economy of the Free Basics is concerned, in the booming internet
environment of big data where personal data is the currency, Facebook and Google are
sitting on Gold mines. Facebook and Google premise their revenue model on selling of
our personal data to the advertisers and other big data ventures. Facebooks estimated
revenue from its 125 million Indian subscribers is nearly $1billion. And because the
company claims itself to be American, it pays no tax on this amount to the Indian

This cocktail of gatekeeping monopoly over what we access on the

unrestrained monetisation of our personal data has the potential to
purpose of the internet as a tool towards a more just world order.
sounding too cynical, the cocktail has the potential of leading us to

internet and the

defeat the whole
With the risk of
an age of digital

On the extreme end - what if Facebook exploit the huge amount of personal data in its
servers of the Free Basics for unethical reasons, what if it starts acting as a propaganda
machine for sheer self-interest? What if other players in the business of internet too
follow Facebook leading to a dismembered internet environment? There can be so many
ways to a digital distress. It will be the less privileged who will be the worst affected in
such an exploitative environment. And in fact, these things are happening at varying
paces. Last year the European Union challenged Google over the allegation that the
internet giant had manipulated its e-commerce search results in Europe in favour of its
own shopping service. Back home, TRAI has to tell Facebook to stop spamming the
authoritys inbox after Facebook started to greet every user with a message supporting
the Free Basics and wanted the user to endorse the same.
Moreover, who will hold them accountable? While the Facebooks and the Googles can
very easily move their servers, their regional offices or the headquarters across national
boundaries, the world is yet to find the direction, let alone start moving, towards a
participatory, equitable global internet governance regime.
The point is clear- lack of internet is a problem needed to be tackled in a much nuanced
way and platforms like the Free Basics are simply not the answer to that. Rather if their
possible negative consequences as discussed above are considered, such platforms have
every ingredient to pose as a threat to a neutral internet.
However, there is good news too. Despite the huge campaigning, Free Basics seems to
have lost the battle of perception. Public has recognised that the priority should be for
affordable neutral internet rather than free but restrained internet. Therefore the better
question to be asked is- how can this objective be achieved? What policy intervention
will allow the expansion of internet without any kind of monopoly being encouraged?
Again the answer to this question is apparently obvious. Indias success in the field of
mobile voice communication is a lesson we need to repeat for the internet connectivity
expansion. Just as in the case of mobile telephone revolution, fair competition among
the private internet service providers will help to connect the unconnected population to
the internet. Provided the basic features of an open neutral internet are safeguarded,
such competition would act as the driver to the internet expansion issue and
simultaneously would protect the gullible mass from falling for the truncated version of
what the original internet is. It will be the most proper use of the current debate to look
for the comprehensive answers to these aspects. This would be a disastrous mistake if
we consider this debate as one between Facebooks Free Basics and those with paid
internet access.

(Date of completion of the article: 23rd January 2016)