You may have noticed by now that Facebook has been requesting you to sign up a petition which they will forward to TRAI. This is a networking program aimed at providing free internet access to people from different industry sectors. What you do not know is that Free Basics is nothing but the Internet.Org campaign rechristened.
Free Basics is the complete opposite of what people talking about Net Neutrality are fighting for. Let’s try to clear the air about the differences these two have created and at the same time try to simplify things so that we know what we are dealing with.
When Facebook launched their petition in India addressing TRAI that people wanted free internet, they refused to dwell on the fact that it was going totally against the norm on which the internet was fundamentally built upon. What Free Basics intends to do is offer free internet to people on the basis that these people use only the services which are provided to them. You may think that free internet is not a bad idea right? But what happens if these free internet providers allow you to access only google and not wikipedia. What happens if they allow you to shop only at Flipkart and not Amazon. Where is the freedom of choice that came when the world wide web was created? Does it not infringe on our rights of choice and more importantly, freedom?
This move from Facebook to rally on the support of its users is misdirecting and ironical in its own way. Facebook speaks highly of letting their users exercise their right of choice now, by drafting a policy with TRAI that will take away these same rights tomorrow.
What is Free Basics?
Remember internet.org? It was that campaign that wanted us to get access only to certain websites through certain telecom providers. Basically, Free Basics and Internet.Org are the same. They plan on letting us access information only which they want us to access. What this means is that if you want to access a service like Pinterest, you will be required to sign up with telecom operator “A”. If you want to access another service like Wikipedia, you will need to sign up with another telecom operator and so on. Although they say that the service is free, do you think that any telecom operator is in business not to make money from their customers?
According to Facebook, Free Basics is a platform that gives developers the opportunity to make their services and websites available free of cost to those who cannot afford internet access. However, this so called free access is limited to partner websites and applications. Internet.Org was launched two years ago globally in partnership with Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm.
But Free Internet Sounds Good, Right?
It’s a marketing gimmick designed to get users onboard today and neglect their freedom of choice tomorrow. The issue is that, contrary to what it claims to be and offer, it does not offer equal or any form of unbiased access to all available services. Facebook is partnering with internet service providers to provide preferential but selective access to a set of app developers and services. This is the main criticism of those opposed to Free Basics. The internet should be free and equal for all users, anywhere, anytime. This is also the cornerstone and founding grounds of the net neutrality campaign.
What is Net Neutrality?
It can be defined as: Access to unrestricted and unbiased content on the internet for all to do as they please. To put it in simple terms, anyone from anywhere around the world, and at any time should be able to access or provide services and content on the internet without any discrimination of any sort. In the online world discrimination includes buying multiple service providers, bandwidth allocation, day versus night tariffs, additional data costs, fluctuating download speeds and so on.
Here is an infographic that should explain what Net Neutrality is. Take some time out to read and understand it. If you still don’t get it, check out the video towards the end of this article to clear things up.
So what Should I do?
Think about it. You have two options.
Option A: If you choose to sign the free basics petition, what you are essentially doing is signing a document letting the telecom industry and governing bodies like TRAI know that you are supporting free internet access by you also acknowledging that you are willing to give up your freedom of choice and freedom of accessing all information whenever you need. You are basically agreeing that at the cost of free internet, you are willing to pay with restricted and targeted information.
Option B: If you do not sign the Free Basics petition, go and sign the Net Neutrality campaign. This way you are telling TRAI know that you don’t want your freedom of choice being infringed upon and that you are willing to continue paying for data as long as you are provided with content that does not discriminate against the information you require. Essentially, this is the right thing to do as I cannot imagine a world where if and when we require certain information, I do not want to be paying one operator for access to services like Khan Academy and other operator for access to services like Coursera. Call me old fashioned but I believe that my service provider should provide me a service that does not discriminate my choices and freedom of access but more importantly not abusing my rights as a consumer.