Free Basics a veiled corporate greed of the worst order?

by | Jan 11, 2016

“If what TRAI or Airtel did was a sin, how does it become a virtue if Facebook’s Free Basics wants to do just that?”

I deeply suspect someone would have told Mark Zuckerberg that the ultimate secret to get Indians to buy something is to use “FREE” as a strategic marketing message. It seems he royally liked the idea… and that’s perhaps how Free Basics got born.
Pun intended apart, remember the backlash that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had to face when it floated a consultation paper on Regulatory Framework for OTT Services? The telecom regulator was criticized on various forums and more so over the social media. In less than a month, it received more than one million emails, mostly supporting net neutrality.
The Airtel Zero plan too faced consumer wrath and was criticized for contradicting the fundamentals of net neutrality as it amounted to enabling preferential treatment for the internet companies and app developers who partnered with Airtel for the plan.
If what TRAI or Airtel did was a sin, how does it become a virtue if Facebook’s Free Basics wants to do just that?
I see a lot of people liking—and also endorsing—the ‘Free Basics’ campaign being run on Facebook these days. What is strange that I had seen many of the same people petition against Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI’s) consultation paper on net neutrality. (Clearly, a good number of people didn’t know what they were petitioning against then and they don’t know what cause they are supporting now.)
Zuckerberg, in an advertisement that argued in favour of Free Basics, said, “Instead of recognizing that Free Basics is opening up the whole Internet, they continue to claim falsely – that this will make the internet more like a walled garden.”
Come on Mr. Zuckerberg, it is about creating a walled garden—and when you make that statement, it’s you who is failing to recognize a simple fact that Free Basics doesn’t have free internet as a starting point. And there can’t be a more blatant twisting of this fact than making that statement of yours. Free Basics is not opening up the whole internet; it is only opening up a chosen few ‘zero rated’ sites that got picked up for the Free Basics bouquet.
Isn’t this a veiled corporate greed of the worst order, more so because it is disguised in a cloak of ‘charity’—that of providing free internet to the ‘deprived billions?’ If you actually wants to do charity, you could have attempted to offer for free the WHOLE of internet, maybe limited by number of minutes or number of kilo bytes or mega bytes per day or per week or whatsoever.
Free Basics—or its predecessor—may be Zuckerberg’s idea of what a ‘free internet’ should look like. He is also free to get upset that people are not thankful enough and are instead opposing his idea. But then he should also recognize the fact that while Facebook may have been created by him, internet has not been created by him or by any individual. Even Tim Berners Lee, who is considered the inventor of World Wide Web, has opposed Free Basics with a very clear message: “just say no.”
Make no mistake: Free Basics is little about charity; it’s all about charity Marketing.
People tend to be supporting Free Basics as the campaign seems to make them think it’s about free internet. In other words, the campaign is driving many of its uninformed and half-informed users to sign petitions as an innocuous looking act. Once someone does the submission, Facebook then prompts other people in her or his network to follow suit with a message—‘so and so’ voiced their opinions about Free Basics. You can too.
In doing so, Facebook is clearly benefiting from the typical psyche of the average Facebook user. (It is a well-known fact that user behaviour on social networks like Facebook is often much determined by peer behaviour. So if it is explicitly made known to users that someone in their social circle has done 
something, there is a much greater probability of them also following suit.)
The very fact that Facebook has used its dominant social media platform to push and promote the Free Basics campaign in a massive way gives it an undue business and competitive advantage over individuals and consumer interest groups that are opposed to the idea. By its own claims, it had garnered a support of 3.2 million people in support of the campaign before the close of December 2015 itself.
Incidentally, it would be pertinent and interesting to find out how many of these millions actually understand what Free Basics is and whether it actually abides with the spirit of a free internet or is in contradiction of that.
I’ll end (not conclude) this post with two questions: One, how does one actually make people aware of the difference between Free Basics and free internet? Two, could there be a better way of resolving this so called debate that the Free Basics campaign has raised?
I shall be looking forward to your views on these questions. And I’ll share my views too in a next post on this very subject. 
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