Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent chat with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was received with a barrage of both praise and criticism on social media. Some called the event <g data-gr-id="42">a public relations</g> damp squib while others spoke glowingly of how Modi’s pitch for foreign investments into his Digital India initiative caught the attention of tech giants. However, one of the off-shoots of the event came in for incessant criticism on social media, with Zuckerberg renewing his pledge to support Prime Minister Modi’s Digital India initiative. Subsequent to Zuckerberg’s pledge, one witnessed many people on Facebook changing their profile picture in solidarity with Zuckerberg’s pledge. Critics, however, have argued that the Facebook CEO was slavishly supporting the Indian government to have Internet.org implemented across India. Suffice to say, Net Neutrality activists are up in arms against what they consider to be Facebook’s surreptitious attempts at expanding their control over the internet. Internet.org or Free Basics refers to a portion of the internet that can be accessed without a data plan. Any content outside the ambit of Free Basics can be accessed if the customer pays the requisite data charge. However, any content within the ambit of Free Basics will be free of cost for the consumer. Facebook has been marketing on how it’s trying to bridge the digital divide. They started Internet.org claiming they want to connect the world by providing free access to those who cannot afford data plans. Through Internet.org, it has tied up with many cell phone companies in various countries.
For example, Reliance does not charge you for data if you visit Facebook, among 10-15 other sites. The question critics often asked is, how can access to Facebook be free and the not other websites? Is it free Internet or ‘free Facebook’? The analogy one commentator used, ironically on Facebook was, “Imagine you are hungry and want to eat. You step outside your house to eat, but the government says the road to McDonalds is toll-free. However, to take the road to a little known local hotel it will cost you 100 rupees. Most people will take the road to McDonalds because they do not have to pay anything. Eventually, all the customers will head to McDonalds and not the local hotel. What happens to the local hotel? It eventually gets shut down as there are no customers and they cannot afford to offer subsidies like the McDonalds.” Essentially, the problem is that a company like Facebook, which was started by college kids back in 2004 in their dorm rooms, exists today as a $250 billion company because the internet was a neutral space. Imagine if the likes of MySpace had created something similar to Internet.org in 2004. It would have been impossible then for Facebook to <g data-gr-id="41">exist,</g> since it did not possess the requisite financial strength to compete with such free services.
Meanwhile, such a platform kills the potential of a Google or Facebook ever coming out of India. Potential startups will simply not possess the requisite capital reserves to match and offer free data plans that will entice users to try out their services. Somewhere along the line, Prime Minister Modi’s Startup India is sweating at the prospect of dealing with Internet.org. Moreover, the famous saying, “if they don’t have bread, let them eat cake”, seems to resonate with Facebook’s ‘attempts’ at bridging the digital divide. Digital technology could enable social mobility, but it does not alter social fundamentals. Basic needs are still out of reach for vast swathes of India’s rural poor. The Centre will do well to pay heed to this fact.