About Free Basics – and why I’m against it

Everyone is aware of ‘Free Basics’, unless he/she has been living under a rock for the last few weeks. Facebook’s endeavour to kick-start it in India has been boosted through all the mediums concerned with online marketing. Whenever you open your Facebook account, there is always a typical notification (No, not the Candy Crush Request) which says, “Your Friends have sent a message to TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) about Digital Equality in India. You can too.” Thus, it is essential to know what Free Basics is. Do we really need it?

Free Basics is nothing but the rebranding of ‘Internet.org’ with a few changes. Internet.org too was a campaign initiated by Facebook. In simple terms, Free Basics is a program by Facebook where a deal is made with Telecom Operators like Reliance etc. to support Telecom companies with millions of customers, who won’t be charged for the services rendered by these companies. To be precise, it can be described as free access to a handful of websites from the Internet. These websites are curated by Facebook. They may include websites affiliated with health-care, education, public services etc. chosen by Facebook. Facebook is not charging these websites anything to apply or get approved. Facebook isn’t even charging anything to the customers. The first look at this seems like a generous and philanthropist effort by Facebook. But the devil is in the details.

Free Basics is a service primarily aimed at the villagers who don’t have any access to the Internet. This part of the population doesn’t even know what Internet is. So when these people get a grasp of Free Basics i.e. Facebook’s Internet, their perception about Internet would be solely driven by Facebook. This is because these people will only be aware of the websites chosen by Facebook. When a person uses Free Basics, he/she never leaves Facebook’s domain. Any website that is available to Free Basics is read by Facebook and then shown on the Free Basics domain itself. The original request never even touches the website you’re trying to reach. Hence, that person never leaves Facebook. Facebook’s intention is to keep people inside Facebook.

In short, Free Basics will only provide the websites that Facebook wants its users to see and not those websites that the user intends to. Recently, some IIT Faculty issued a joint statement in which Free Basics was termed as “misleading and flawed”. They asked TRAI to intervene and disallow its launch in India. The statement issued by IIT Professors was: “Free Basics is a lethal combination which will lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their public utility – The Internet. The proposal has several flaws, beneath the veil of altruism wrapped around it in TV and other media advertisements.” Facebook would be able to access all the private information of its users for a course of 90 days. Once this information reaches the Facebook servers in USA, a copy of this data will be submitted to the government of USA.

This is neither ‘Free’ nor ‘Basic’. The term ‘Free’ is an a marketing gimmick – we all know that if a comb is free with hair oil, then the comb’s cost is somehow recovered. Similarly, when Facebook curates the websites it includes in Free Basics, Facebook is paid. The term ‘Basics’ is also a trick because Free Basics only includes websites which are handpicked by Facebook which may or may not be Basic websites at all.

Free Basics opposes Net neutrality to the core but uses the term Digital Equality while advertising. There is no equality because only few websites which are desired by Facebook come under Free Basics and those who oppose this deceptive venture are axed. Facebook has spent millions in advertising and now many are tricked by the twisting definition of Net Neutrality presented by Facebook which has created guilt traps.

The Father of the World Wide Web, the Internet as we mostly know it, Tim Berners-Lee, has issued a statement about ‘Free Basics’. “In the particular case of somebody who’s offering … something which is branded internet, it’s not internet, then you JUST SAY NO. No it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something … [only] giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards,” he said.

Long story short, ‘Free Basics’ is Facebook’s attempt at creating a strong monopoly, enhancing the stability of the company while they’re at it. However, popular publishing sites have successfully managed to create an awareness among the masses with regard to this issue with a view to protect the World Wide Web. Considering the circumstances, one thing is certain – the only people who can save the internet are people themselves.

This article is part of PaGaLGuY’s innovative Internship programme for engineering students. Currently, two such programmes are on – one on Creative Writing, the other is a Certification on Digital Media. If you are interested in partaking and  bagging a certificate, besides learning the nuances of effective writing, mail us at wordslingers@pagalguy.com 

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