Facebook has started a campaign asking its users in India to send an automated e-mail to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India letting them know that they support Free Basics. According to its critics, such a zero rating platform violates the very concept of net neutrality —the idea that service providers treat all internet traffic as the same. These automated e-mails would help Facebook gather public support for its own version of net neutrality in TRAI’s consultation paper. Looking back at recent history, the Cellular Operations Association of India — a telecom lobby — had launched a campaign called ‘Sab ka Internet’ for net neutrality in India. The COAI claimed that the overwhelming support (about 40 lakh responses) for net neutrality had come through voice calls and SMSs. Suffice to say, there was little support for net neutrality. The COAI had in fact tried to ensure that social media apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, Skype and others were brought under the same regulations as the telecom companies. The telecom operators have argued that this is a process that should be made mandatory, since it affects the telecom bodies that allow data services for these very applications. They have further added that if these applications weren’t brought under the same regulatory body, the data prices would have to be raised at least six fold in order to meet their expected profits. Facebook has been an associate member to the COAI since the month of August, last year.
In India, Reliance Communications has tied up with Facebook offering the Free Basics program. Both corporations had made a claim last year in May stating that they had collectively brought in more than a million Indian users to the Internet via the Free Basics program. However, the data available did not mention how many first time users they had enrolled. Facebook had also released a newsletter revealing that over 800,000 users of the Internet in India are Internet.org (Free Basics) users. Other studies, though, found that only 20 percent of the 8000,000 were first-time users. The point of concern remains the misleading nature of Facebook’s campaign. The page with the petition itself provides a rosy picture of how Free Basics is a process through which data would be made available to those who can’t afford it. There have also been a number of complaints that have been registered. Many have complained that Facebook is getting their petition in favour of Free Basics signed without their approval.
However, on the other side of the debate, there is an argument to be made that net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist. To give more people access to the internet, they argue, it is useful to offer some services for free. If some cannot afford to pay for internet connectivity, it is always better to at least have some access than none at all. In a recent post, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity. Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two-thirds of the world who are not connected. Every person in the world deserves access to the opportunities the internet provides.” Suffice to say, such a solution is not a panacea that will fix everything that’s wrong with India. The argument goes that Free Basics is a net ‘Pareto’ improvement—it makes some of those who cannot afford an internet connection better off without making anyone worse off.