What Net Neutrality Ayatollahs won’t tell you about FreeBasics

Net-neutrality has been a hot topic for debate in India since Mark Zuckerberg decided to launch Free Basics in India. In case you were sleeping and just woke up, this debate is about saving the internet from the whims and fancies of big corporate players like Facebook which plans to offer free but limited internet in India through Free Basics. Without going too much back and forth, let’s look at the arguments put forth by the main protagonists against Free Basics and see how weak they are. The list of arguments below is taken from the blog savetheinternet.in.

1)  There are other successful models (this, this, this) for providing free Internet access to people, without giving a competitive advantage to Facebook. Free Basics is the worst of our options.

Rebuttal: No one has stopped other firms to offer these models mentioned above. If they are really better than FB, let the consumers decide whether they are better or not. If one type of banana is bad and rotten, does it need govt. intervention to force people and restrict from eating rotten banana? Wouldn’t free market ensure that if Free Basics is really the worst product, it will be thrown out of the market just like the rotten banana.

2) Facebook doesn’t pay for Free Basics, telecom operators do. Where do they make money from? From users who pay. By encouraging people to choose Free Basics, Facebook reduces the propensity to bring down data costs for paid Internet access.

Rebuttal: This is again one sided argument and can be demolished in many ways. For eg. When buying a new product, people would often choose limited services, so that they can try and make up their mind- like a limited cable tv subscription can be later upgraded to include more channels. Similarly new users who get hooked to internet will not be satisfied with a limited package of Free Basics, thus demanding full internet package in the future and providing incentives to telecom operators to ramp up their infrastructure.

3) Free Basics isn’t about bringing people online. It’s about keeping Facebook and its partners free, while everything else remains paid. Users who pay for Internet access can still access Free Basics for free, giving Facebook and its partners an advantage. Free Basics is a violation of Net Neutrality.

Rebuttal: It is proof by redundancy. First, define net neutrality as an inviolable  concept and then by default anything that violates it becomes non-halal.

4) Internet access is growing rapidly in India. We’ve added 100 million users in 2015. Almost all the connections added in India the last 1 year are NOT because of Free Basics.

Rebuttal: How is this even relevant to the debate? Just because India added 100 million users in 2015 does not mean there are no other users to be added any more or that offering Free Basics will actually decrease this number. The subscription base cannot be used to determine whether a new product should be launched or not.

5) Free Basics is not an open platform. Facebook defines the technical guidelines for Free Basics, and reserves the right to change them. They reserve the right to reject applicants, who are forced to comply with Facebook’s terms. In contrast they support ‘permissionless innovation’ in the US.

Rebuttal: Facebook is offering a limited service for free and should be free to choose the technical guidelines. Android is free but Google still enforce technical guidelines for future developers on what they can/cannot do with the platform. This is just one way to harmonize the products offered under Free Basics.

6) The only source of info on Facebook’s Free Basics is Facebook, and it misleads people. Facebook was criticised in Brazil for misleading advertising. (source) Their communication in India is misleading. People find the “Free” part of Free Basics advertising from Facebook (or FreeNet free Internet) from Reliance misleading. (source)

Rebuttal: This is another bizarre argument. Since when did Amul start advertising for Mother dairy’s milk products? By the way, the above fact is not even true, given that so much info about Free Basics is provided on the Savetheinternet.in website itself. The review columns on newspapers and websites exist for the precise reason that they help in dissecting the noise from real value of the product.

7) Facebook gets access to all the usage data and usage patterns of all the sites on Free Basics. No website which wants to compete with Facebook will partner with them because it will have to give them user data. Facebook gives data to the NSA (source) and this is a security issue for India.

Rebuttal: This is a worthwhile issue to debate about and Facebook can be asked to have its servers in India. But, how is this argument related to the holy grail of “net neutrality”? Even without Facebook offering Free Basics, the current servers of Facebook are located in US and open for abuse by NSA.

8) Research has shown that people prefer to use the open web for a shorter duration over a limited set of sites for a longer duration. (source)

Rebuttal: Well, if that is what people prefer to do rather than pay, why does the Gods of net neutrality find it indigestible? Eating hamburgers is bad for health and is proved beyond doubt, but should we have campaigns to outright ban them? Yes, one can engage in negative publicity against hamburgers but banning them is not the recourse anyone would suggest.

9) Facebook says that Free Basics doesn’t have ads, but does not say that it will never have ads on Free Basics.

Rebuttal: So, if Facebook agrees to never put ads on Free Basics, will it somehow become kosher? Even currently, the entire internet is littered with ads, does that make it less useful? Would the proponents of Net Neutrality ask for banning ads on popular tv channels as well by similar logic? People who do not prefer ads, they either opt out or reduce consumption of internet sites which have too many ads. This would be true even for Free Basics.

10) Facebook has shown people as saying that they support Free Basics when they haven’t. They may claim 3.2 million in support, but how many of those mails are legitimate?

Rebuttal: This can be challenged in the court of law if Savetheinternet.in really thinks that it is a criminal offence. But again, this argument has nothing to do with net neutrality debate. How Facebook got those signatures is immaterial to allowing Facebook to offer another internet service in the market.

As it can be seen from above, none of the arguments put forth by the opponents of Free Basics can withstand basic logical reasoning. But it is no wonder that years of socialist brainwashing in India has created deep distrust for market economy while giving free pass for indiscriminate government intervention that has time and again failed the common citizen. The only thing that interventions like this can achieve is setting bad precedents that would allow to hound any new customer service in the future by online petitioning. It will also open the possibility for incumbent firms to hire specialist agencies to create stir against new rival firms thus killing the creative destruction mechanism, which forms the bedrock of any well-functioning market economy. The recent opposition of Nandan Nilekani to Free Basics can be seen as a strategic behaviour in this light.

Another important argument that is completely missed in the whole debate is that the biggest threat to free speech and open internet is from governments around the world and not the big corporations. Frequent banning of websites in different countries is a testament for this abuse of power. Using government to kill Free Basics, the net neutrality activists are only playing in the hands of government which will use this precedent in the future to censor negative opinion by passing ad-hoc laws. The only thing that the net neutrality activists should defend is freedom of choice as well as freedom to innovate. As long as these basic principles are followed, the best product will win over the consumer market without the need to endorse the bigger evil i.e. unchecked state power.