(with Himanshu Gupta, @halfrebel
India has been fervently debating Free Basics, a restricted Internet services bundle that is managed by Facebook and provided for free on Reliance Telecom’s mobile network.
Indian civil society and academia are enraged as Free Basics goes against the basic tenets of net neutrality. It takes away people’s right to choose what they want to access, exposes them to a very limited set of web content and apps decided by Facebook, and potentially threatens the privacy of their personal data.
Facebook on the contrary argues that something is better than nothing, and sees Free Basics as a magic bullet for connecting the uninitiated to the world’s information superhighway. Besides promoting it as a philanthropic endeavour, Facebook claims that customers enrolled onto Free Basics eventually upgrade to the full Internet when they see how wonderful it is to be connected to the Internet. According to Facebook’s data, 40% of its Free Basics users so far have done so, which is primarily the reason why Reliance Telecom is funding the free data in the first place.
Even if we were to believe Facebook that people would migrate to the (paid) open access Internet, we believe Free Basics, in its current form, is a poor way of offering Internet access to India’s unconnected billion, with undesirable consequences.