As a person who uses Facebook multiple times a day, Hasina Khatun came across the message ‘Act now to save Free Basics in India’ which the social networking site has directed to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to promote it’s Free Basics campaign in India.
She became one of the 3.2 million users that Facebook claims to have signed up in support of the platform which aims to bring ‘digital equality and internet penetration’ to the rural parts of the country. Amidst the company’s aggressive campaigns across different verticals – full page advertisements in almost all major national and regional newspapers, hoardings across bus stops, videos on Facebook asking users to sign in to support Free Basics – here is a low-down on what netizens have to say about it.
“With only 12 per cent internet penetration in our country, I don’t think that like luxury items, the internet should be categorised into something only accessible to the well off. Accessibility is the idea behind this petition and I standby it,” explains Khatun. Agrees Sumitra Raja who signed up for the petition as well saying if TRAI agrees to it, users will have “integrated access to a range of online services”.
But contesting the idea of accessibility is the essence of net neutrality or network neutrality as internet giants could easily afford to participate in such programmes, putting new players like start-ups at a disadvantage.
“First time internet users would never know there’s an internet apart from this platform and hence those sites that aren’t able to fund to such platforms including start ups would never be able register their online presence,” feels 22-year-old Pratik Anand who has been following the controversy which began with Facebook’s Internet.org that many claim has been revamped as Free Basics.
Simply put, Free Basics is an application that one can download to access some particular websites and online services for free, sans any data cost. “Though Facebook says all sites are included, it is Facebook which will eventually take a call on which websites can be part of this. So, it’s unlimited services form a restricted internet, which is against open access or net neutrality,” says communication professional Sanat Sinha.
India is currently Facebook’s second-biggest market after USA with 130 million users, and many net neutrality advocates believe that its campaign is another example of how the company is misusing its size and influence.
“Facebook is now the owner of WhatsApp and Instagram, the acquirer of virtual reality firm Oculus, and 50 other companies in the field of travel, file sharing, mobile ads, digital publishing, location services, face recognition, speech recognition… the list is long and exhaustive,” mentions Anand.
Similarly, Anja Kovacs, director, The Internet Democracy Project which works for an internet that supports free speech, democracy and social justice in India, says one giant’s overpowering presence is indisputable.
She tells Metrolife, “My biggest concerns stem from the growing dominance of the company trying to become a gate of access for internet users and a misleading campaign in the name of bringing digital equality or internet for all.”
Though the social networking platform’s petition has been contested by the SaveTheInternet.in petition and various portals, including videos by comedy collective AIB (All India Bakchod) that urge users to make informed decisions, many fear that people are being led by popular sentiments.
“I believe Indian netizens have got into the habit of liking and adopting every offering from the social media giant – from colouring their display pictures to sharing posts by the social media team, just because it sounds cool which is quite dangerous,” says cybersecurity enthusiast Mudit Jain Sethia.