Free Basics: 'It’s not really free access to the entire Internet'

Written by: Maitreyee Boruah

Activists Sarath and Shijil of the Free Software Movement Karnataka (FSMK) are part of a pan-Indian community, who are actively fighting for Net Neutrality and against Facebook's Free Basics.

In an exclusive interview to OneIndia, the activists tell how Net Neutrality in India can help bring inclusive growth and the 'Free Basics' deception.

[Net Neutrality debate: Why Facebook's 'Free Basics' should stay in India]

Free Software Movement Karnataka (FSMK)

Q: Why and how programmes like Facebook's Free Basics, Google-RailTel and killing free, fair and neutral cyberspace?

Sarath: The Internet functions as a global network in which anyone can connect, receive and provide content without any discrimination. People pay for the amount of data they want to use and/or the speed with which they want to access Internet.

When connected, people can access any website or service without any discrimination. One provider's site is accessible to all its visitors, just as that of any of their competitors. This makes the Internet neutral to all, providers and consumers.

Programmes like Free Basics, which is just a new misleading name for the earlier, seeks to provide a minuscule subset of Internet, without charging the users for data usage by partnering with telecom operators. Although this provides free access to maybe a few hundred websites out of over a billion, it also creates a barrier for users to go outside that perimeter to avoid charges.

Moreover, the freely available services are ultimately controlled by Facebook. This gives an unfair competitive advantage to those websites over the ones which aren't included in the 'package'.

We are watching the developments around the Google-RailTel deal closely and waiting for more details to emerge. We can imagine a few problems that may arise out of such deals if left unquestioned, but it depends on how they propose to implement the services.

Q: Like your protest at Forum Mall, Koramangala in Bengaluru and in Mandya on Saturday (January 2), are you planning to conduct more such protests across Karnataka and India?

Shijil: FSMK is following the developments closely and have stepped up its campaign in more districts across Karnataka where we have activists. Similar campaigns have been hosted by like-minded organisations under the banner of the Free Software Movement of India ( in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Q: How do such campaigns help create awareness among the masses about Net Neutrality?

Sarath: Facebook is running a conspicuous campaign, based on false information and misleading facts through newspaper and television advertisements, billboards, etc. Facebook has timed it with the release of the consultation paper by TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) on differential pricing to assess public opinion on the issue.

They've used their widely used social networking platform to get people to send e-mails to TRAI in support of Free Basics by disguising it as a philanthropic exercise. Facebook has also resorted to social pressure tactics like repeated and multiple notifications of friends signing up for a 'good cause'.

We have to counter such a massive propaganda with whatever resources we have. So, we decided to take it to the street to tell people the truth. It's difficult to make people see through the mask of philanthropy.

Free Software Movement Karnataka (FSMK)

Q: How do plan to convince the common man about the importance of Net Neutrality when Facebook is running such a huge campaign claiming to give free Internet access to all?

Shijil: This is the most difficult part of our campaign. The name 'Free Basics' itself is as misleading as a candy manufacturer naming one of its products 'Basic Food' for a market which hasn't been able to afford basic essential food and not told what does candy contains.

Most people we spoke to, think they are getting free Internet access. But, it is just access to Facebook's social networking site and a few other sites. We are telling people-- (A) Not to fall for the 'free' tag, (B) That it's not really free access to the entire Internet, (C) That services like videos won't be available and (D) Eventually the few companies will gain too much control and distort the way Internet works.

Q: What is the general profile of the members of Free Software Movement Karnataka and across India?

Sarath: FSMK, functioning since 2007 and registered in 2009, is an organisation with territorial goals and is part of the Free Software Movement of India, a network of such organisations across the country.

Our members come from various walks of life and the organisation primarily comprises software engineers, students, teachers, professors of engineering colleges and government employees.

Our community thrives on the network of Gnu/Linux User Groups across the state run by students and coordinated by FSMK. It together engages in advocating and developing Free Software. We run 'Community Centres', which are self-organised centers for free learning spaces for computers and beyond, for marginalised sections who are also part of our collective leadership.

Q: How much awareness is there among the general public about the risk involved in adopting programmes like Free Basics?

Shijil: People haven't been informed about the reality of zero rating or differential pricing. Most of them showed support for Free Basics through Facebook, either because they understood it as a way for everyone to get free Internet access or a 'good cause' to provide basic Internet to the poor in India or because of the repeated and persistent notifications as soon as they log in.

They are not aware of the following dangers:

Walled Garden: Beyond the 'approved' websites, people will have a newly created cost barrier to cross and then visit those websites. This creates a tendency to remain within the 'free' zone. Soon, more companies will launch their own walled garden with another set of websites and their users will remain in that zone. Eventually, it will break the Internet into pieces.

Security: The secure connections to services like banking, trading, shopping and logging in to websites will now be less secure because Facebook will temporarily decrypt such connections on their servers before sending it again encrypted to the destination website.

Such connections are otherwise not readable by anyone except the destination website server and are usually mathematically difficult to crack. We have to knowingly let go of that assured safety.

Privacy: Facebook will be able to track every action of users using Free Basics. Coupled with being able to decrypt secure information, they can build detailed profiles of its users. Although it claims to not have ads 'currently', there is no statement which assures they will not do it in future.

In any case, it is a company which earns billions of dollars, without any of its users paying for their services. With its large collection of social network profiles, will it not misuse such data gathered through Free Basics? This is akin to a wolf assuring that it will guard the sheep.

Surveillance: Through Edward Snowden, it has been revealed that Facebook is one of the partners of NSA (US Intelligence agency) in providing data for mass surveillance purposes, along with Google, Apple, Microsoft and others. With all traffic on Free Basics passing through Facebook's servers, we will not know if this will also be freely accessed by such surveillance apparatus.

Q: Are Internet users in India currently divided in two groups-pro-Net Neutrality and pro-Free Basics?

Sarath: That may not be an accurate division. There are a few (but fast growing) like us who want to uphold Net Neutrality, a few (and shrinking) who think such discriminatory services are good based on the 'something is better than nothing' notion.

The rest have been successfully misled by Facebook's multi-crore false campaign and have forgotten that they clicked a submit button that Facebook kept showing them until clicked.

Some people have even reported seeing notifications which say friends, who have passed away long ago, have supported Free Basics.

Q: Why both the sides-pro-Net Neutrality and pro-Free Basics-are citing examples of poor people to win the debate? Are the poor just a pawn in the war to own the Internet?

Shijil: It is right that there is a war being waged and that there are attempts to gain control of the Internet, but they are not one and the same.

Facebook is clearly going after the large market of new Internet users. Controlling the way they get access is the key to their business model. The war being waged is between false propaganda and facts.

By ensuring Net Neutrality, its proponents are not going to gain control over the Internet, rather it ensures that no undue and unfair control over the Internet is created.

There is also this vilification by Facebook that pro-Net Neutrality is equal to anti-poor. Our argument is not in defence of poor, but in defence of the governing principles of the Internet.

We demand that the poor and the marginalised in India should get free Internet access or with minimal charges. We are working on alternative models which can provide better and full access to people without the above hazards.

Q: How willing is the government to save Net Neutrality in India?

Sarath: We are currently optimistic. The government has in the past assured that Net Neutrality will not be violated. One problem is that the definition of the term Net Neutrality is kept fluid and adapted to regional situations.

Further, the regulatory body has only been putting out consultation papers to seek opinion of various stakeholders, but hasn't come up with any regulatory framework for telecom operators and/or ISPs.

The notification from TRAI to Reliance Communications asking to put the latter's Free Basics programme on hold is a welcome move.

But it hasn't ensured compliance. We demand the formulation of a strong legislation or amendment to The Indian Telegraph Act to assure that Net Neutrality will be maintained by telecom operators and related parties.

We also strongly urge the government to prioritise the Universal Service Obligation, constitutionally mandated since over a decade now, instead of relying on private players to provide it in return for the rights and freedom of Indian citizens.

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