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There Are No Free Lunches

There Are No Free Lunches

Facebook is projecting its Free Basics service as a purely altruistic exercise. It is anything but...

Rarely has any company spent so much money to promote an ostensibly "free" service. Facebook took full- page cover ads in most major newspapers to tout the benefits of Free Basics, a supposedly free Internet service. Facebook is trying very hard to make the Indian telecom regulator, TRAI, give an approval for the Free Basics service. Under the Free Basics scheme, users won't have to pay data charges for accessing Facebook and certain other sites that it approves, through a mobile device using a Reliance Communication connection in India. (Free Basics is being offered in 38 poor countries in partnership with a different telco in each country). Mark Zuckerberg pitches it as a purely altruistic service, which would benefit millions of poor people access the Internet.

That is, of course, only half the truth. The service might be free but Facebook gets to collect user data. More importantly, Facebook controls and directs which sites the user can access easily. It is, what is dubbed, the Walled Garden strategy. In essence, users get to access only those sites for free which Facebook approves. To access others, he or she pays the full data usage charges. Also, in all probability, sites that are not approved by Facebook will not be as easy to access as the ones it approves, even if one is paying the data charges. Facebook can use all sorts of technology to promote some sites against others. It can also use the data and its control over access to make money in many ways.

Facebook had earlier tried to offer much the same through its programme. An outcry forced it to change the name. Facebook is not alone in trying such offerings. Earlier, Airtel, the country's largest mobile services company, had tried to offer something similar before backing out because of stiff resistance from Net Neutrality activists. The proponents of Net Neutrality say that users should be able to access all legal content and applications, regardless of source, and Internet service providers cannot offer preferential treatment to certain sites while blocking others. Net Neutrality is important because it puts all content sites on an equal footing and lets the user decide which it will prefer.

Though Net Neutrality activists like to see the Free Basics issue in black and white, the truth is that even if TRAI does allow Facebook to offer it in India, it is unlikely to be as much of a threat as they think it will be. For one, Reliance Communications is not a monopoly - far from it, it is now the fifth largest player with 118 million subscribers, and even if it gains in size after its proposed merger (see story on page 88), it will still not be the sole gateway to the internet for a country as vast as India. It would not even be the sole gateway for mobile users, forget those accessing the Net through other means. More importantly, few users are under the illusion that anything really comes for free - they know that if they want to access important sites, they will have to pay anyway, and are prepared to do so. And few users on the Net would prefer to be stuck to a few sites approved by Facebook. Finally, people who may opt for free services of the nature of Free Basics may not be the kind of customers who generate much revenues and profits for sites.

In all likelihood, Free Basics is unlikely to be allowed by TRAI given the amount of opposition it is facing from the activists. But even if it is, the fear that it will stifle Net Neutrality is vastly overblown.

Published on: Jan 09, 2016, 3:54 PM IST
Posted by: Gurpreet Kaur, Jan 09, 2016, 3:54 PM IST