Ahmer Khurshid for BeyondHeadlines
Free Basics is a programme by the Facebook initiative internet.org to provide basic internet services, like search, Wikipedia, health information and weather updates for free to all users.
The aforementioned initiative aims to bring basic connectivity by connecting one billion Indians to jobs, education and opportunities online and ultimately a better future, according to an advertisement released by Facebook.
Internet.org is a partnership between social networking services company Facebook and six other companies that plan to bring affordable access to selected internet services to less developed countries by increasing efficiency. In India, Facebook has tied up with Reliance Communication for the initiative. It has been criticised for violating net neutrality and handpicking internet services that it will include in their platform and for discriminating against other companies which will not be a part of it like, for example, Facebook’s rival companies.Mark Zuckerberg contends that internet connectivity is a basic human right and remarks that connecting everyone is one of the fundamental challenges. Mr Zuckerberg commented that his company aims to bring affordable connectivity to billions of the world’s poor, including Indians.
Facebook claims its Free Basics service is under the NDA government’s Digital India programme which aims at digitalising India in the context of digital equality in India. It claims to make internet accessible to more citizens by providing them access to a range of services like news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication and local government information but all are piled up in a series of 25 websites, selected individually under no transparency by Facebook.
The Facebook CEO even got Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to sign a declaration pledging their collective resource towards this goal.
The basic premise of net neutrality is of freedom, an open internet that protects and enables free communication. Anything that takes away this freedom violates the fundamentals of free internet. Facebook’s Free Basics is neither free nor basic irrespective of its claims that anyone can join the platform and it’s not for selected audience. If we analyse the consumer’s point of view, first we need to have a valid Reliance Communication SIM card and then we get access to only those websites that have collaborated with Facebook to be a part of the platform; although there is a provisionthat websites can apply for a license to be a part of the platform, in the end it is going to be Facebook’s call on who gets to participate. To give an instance, it will be on Facebook’s recommendation and choice we will be allowed to gather information, news or education. On the contrary, the principle of net neutrality states we can access the entire internet which is contrary to the Free Basics provision oflimiting it to a certain number of accessible websites on the basis of payment. In any democracy it is imperative to respect the choice of the citizens as far as consumption is involved. Regarding Free Basics it should be left to the consumer to decide what he/she wants to access.