Facebook’s Free Basics is Not Free, Basic Internet Access—Here’s Why

by December 31, 2015 0 comments

The Internet has become an interesting place, not only because it has over a billion websites, but over who controls its access. That’s what Facebook has been trying to do in a global campaign that it calls Free Basics. Here’s a quick primer on what’s really happening and why should you be concerned.

What is Free Basics?

It’s a global program by Facebook to give first time Internet users who can’t afford to buy a data plan, free access to a limited set of services on the Internet. The program is being offered in association with Reliance Communications, where all Reliance subscribers will get free access to Facebook’s proprietary Free Basics platform, which will offer free access to Facebook and its partner websites.

With Free Basics, users will only see the Internet that Facebook wants them to see. Sure they’ll bring in partners who offer all kinds of services like healthcare, education, job portals, etc. on this platform, but that would be only a small fraction of what’s actually available on the Internet. Users will therefore be deprived of their right to access all Internet resources, unless they later buy a data plan.

It’s their second attempt to make this happen. The first one was in the name of Internet.org, which was shot down by TRAI.

What’s wrong with giving free access?

There’s nothing wrong in giving free access to the Internet, but the problem is when a few private players try to control what people can access on the Internet and try to portray it as giving free basic internet access.

Unfortunately, that’s what the name Free Basics is being equated to–free, basic Internet access, which is misleading! It’s giving access only to Facebook and its partners services for free, and not to the entire Internet.

Isn’t it about the noble cause of connecting the next billion on the Internet?

According to Facebook, Free Basics is the first step to bringing the next billion people online. Critics argue, and not without good reason, that this definitely cannot be considered as the first step. There are many other ways to do that, which we’ll not get into here, but they all give access to the entire Internet and not just a restricted portion of it.

In any case, thanks to increasing mobile penetration, the number of Internet users is rising exponentially, and we’re likely to see another 100 million users getting added in the next two years in India alone.

Then, there’s no real need to have a gateway in between in the form of Facebook and a carrier for it to happen. The only purpose it would serve is to increase Facebook’s user base, which it can leverage for getting business and to grow its own market share.

So no, it doesn’t really mean giving equal rights to the Internet for the poor or deprived.

Do users really want free, limited Internet access?

A lot of first time Internet users in India may not even know what to access on the Internet due to lack of knowledge. So, with Free Basics, they would start equating Facebook access to the Internet, which clearly goes in Facebook’s and its partners’ favor. Critics argue that it’s not the right way to get users on the Internet. In many countries, according to various surveys, people don’t prefer to go for data plans that provide access to limited Internet resources. Their argument is simple—if they access say, Facebook today, maybe they want to search something on Google tomorrow. But if the data plan only permits Facebook access, then they’ll not be able to do that, or shop on Flipkart, or hunt for a job on naukri.com, and so on and so forth. For that, they’ll have to buy an open data plan.

The same argument applies to Free Basics as well. If users will anyways end up moving to a paid plan to access the open Internet eventually, then there’s really no need to have Facebook as a gatekeeper in between.

What are the risks of allowing Free Basics or similar schemes to be allowed by the govt.?

Why’s it such a big issue to allow Facebook to give Free Basics? The answer is simple. Anybody who has access to users’ data today is king. The more personal data that a company acquires, the bigger its empire will become because it will sell that data to potential advertisers, or worse still, to govt. agencies for spying on you.

Data is the new oil of the 21st century, and whoever controls it will control the global economy. There’s nothing wrong in gaining access to user data, provided it’s done in an open manner that’s transparent to the user. People for instance, happily buy iPhones or Android phones and download so many apps in exchange for providing their personal details to their respective app stores. Developers create both free and paid apps, and users download the ones they find useful. Here, all developers get an equal opportunity to put up their software and users get unrestricted access to see all apps.

With Free Basics, users will only see an Internet world that Facebook wants them to see. The long term repercussions of allowing this would mean other players would follow suite and the Internet would soon become fragmented and controlled by a few large players.

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