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

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As telecom regulator TRAI called for public response on Free Basics, Facebook is making last ditch effort to defend its ambitious initiative to provide a pre-selected suite of internet services to those who can't afford it.

For those who are yet to be part of the ongoing debate, Free Basics is an app that gives users selective access to services like communication, healthcare, education, job listings and farming information -- all without data charges.

Why Free Basics should stay in India

Activists are against this for they think it is against the concept of Net Neutrality and that Free Basics is nothing but Facebook's propaganda.

How Facebook is defending Free Basics

To garner support for Free Basics Facebook first came up with splashy full page ads in major Indian newspapers, SMS campaigns and now a personal piece by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a leading English daily.

Zuckerberg wrote in his opinion piece on Monday in the Times of India,"Free Basics should stay to help achieve digital equality for India. Free Basics is a bridge to the full internet and digital equality."

"There's no valid basis for denying people the choice to use Free Basics, and that's what thousands of people across India have chosen to tell the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) over the last few weeks," he added.

Why Free Basics should be allowed in India

Amid this debate, millions of Indians watching ads, reading messages on their phones, computers are still confused how voting 'for' or 'against' Free Basics is going to affect their life or bring about a change in their lives.

As per Shashi Shekhar, CEO of Niti Digital, Net Neutrality in India should be an entirely different debate.

According to him, the advocates of Net Neutrality forget the fact that over the top (OTT) players like Skype and Viber are taking a free ride on Internet service providers' networks created through massive investments, and are also eating into their revenue by offering competing but free services.

"To most in India, access matters more than anything else given the vast digital divide. Few weeks back I wrote of Dhiraj Tripathi a cab driver who has a smartphone, uses WhatsApp, who got on Twitter recently because Narendra Modi is on Twitter.

"Dhiraj's biggest challenge is access as he goes around looking for free wi-fi. If tomorrow Facebook or Google gives him a low cost bundled plan with exclusive access to the two or three services he really cares about, Dhiraj will happily lap it up giving two hoots to whether Facebook or Google are violating 'Net Neutrality'," Shekhar says. 

Example of of Dhiraj might just be one of the millions Indians who are still untouched by the internet and Free Basics gives them a chance to at least get access to some basic internet services for free.

And as the Facebook's statement itself says that according to global statistics, 50% of users go to full internet access within thirty days. So if the users eventually get access to the open internet then let the people decide whether they are happy with Free Basics or not.

According to Shashi Shekhar, for the neo-middle class which is just now getting on the Digital India bandwagon - Net Neutrality has no meaning or relevance to them as long as they can get subsidized access to chosen few Apps.

"Some consumers who want subsidized access will prefer bundled plans with restricted access. Some consumers like me would want to pay for Quality of Service and demand that it be guaranteed like the Fast Lane, Angela Merkel talks about. Some OTT Apps like Flipkart.com and SnapDeal.com will have to choose between spending those funds on Television Advertising and Preferential Slotting," explains Shashi Shekhar.

There are people of same opinion who feel letting market forces decide the Net Neutrality debate will be the best bet.

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