Free Basics may be evil, but a free lane need not be

Visvaksen P | Updated on January 22, 2018


Facebook’s Free Basics follows Microsoft’s precedent in trying to create a walled garden in India. But is a free lane such a bad idea?

Long before Mark Zuckerberg arrived on the scene, trying to rebrand the Internet as a gated community with Facebook deciding who gets in and out, there was Bill Gates and Microsoft.

Around the turn of the century, Gates made three high-profile visits to India. Flanked by fawning politicians wherever he went, Microsoft’s then CEO repeatedly flashed his wallet as sarkari representatives lined up with their begging bowls, keen to be seen as benefiting from the technological know-how and deep pockets of the American software giant. Gates, who was the world’s richest man at that point, handed out over 2000 crore rupees in all. The majority of those contributions were part of a coordinated Microsoft effort to shut its competitors out of India. Linux, the open source operating system, was starting to gain traction with government departments and educational institutions around the country and Microsoft countered this through its EDGI (Education and Government Incentives) program, using Gates’ philanthropy as an effective smokescreen.

Walled garden

The strategy was simple – get Windows on as many systems as possible, particularly in the education sector, regardless of the cost. The initial outlay was partly offset by the PR gains of investing in third world education. In the long term though, the benefits to the company were enormous – fostering a nation trained in, and therefore dependent on their operating system. Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, was one of the few people speaking out against Microsoft at the time. The open source evangelist, who found himself in India around the same time as Gates’ 2002 visit, was quoted comparing Microsoft’s handouts to “gifting cigarettes” – initially free, but expensive once you get hooked.

Stallman was dismissed as a voice from the periphery attempting to spoil a good thing. But internal Microsoft memos and emails made public through antitrust litigation revealed that he had in fact pinpointed Microsoft’s intentions. The EDGI program was a systematic attempt to thwart adoption of Linux and other competing operating systems through massive grants and subsidies tied to Microsoft software purchases. These handouts locked institutional clients into the Microsoft ecosystem, ensuring that they would line Redmond’s coffers for a long time.

Today, Windows remains the dominant operating system in India with over 85% market share according to analytics firm StatCounter. However, there are signs that we are finally starting to see beyond the walled garden. The government recently articulated a policy prioritizing open source software and it has even developed its own distribution of Linux for official use.

Same approach

The parallels between what Microsoft did a decade and a half ago to take control of your desktop and what Facebook is attempting to do now to have its way with your Internet are as clear as day. By dangling the carrot of a free tier for the Internet, Zuckerberg hopes to funnel new users into a separate network that is controlled, regulated and monetized by Facebook.

The service – recently rechristened Free Basics – will allow access to a selection of partner websites for free. It violates the principle of network neutrality, which states that all network traffic must be treated and taxed the same regardless of origin, destination or any other consideration. In the West, the debate over net neutrality centred on the idea of fast lanes and slow lanes, but in barely connected India where all lanes are slow lanes, a free lane is what is being debated.

While Internet activists have been attempting to rally the masses to counter Facebook’s moves, Zuckerberg has gone on record to state that their definition of net neutrality is “extreme.” In a Facebook post made in April, he asserted that net neutrality and universal connectivity “can and must co-exist.” “Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide,” he added.

The façade of altruism notwithstanding, the motive behind Free Basics is clearly long term commercial gain. However, what makes it hard to negate completely is that, stripped of its Facebook wrapping, the idea of a free tier offering basic universal connectivity is not inherently bad in a country like India. While the net neutrality principle helps maintain a level playing field, it does little to lower barriers of access to the network, thus ensuring the network remains equal but only for the relatively privileged. In the near 50-year history of the Internet, its greatest hits have slowly tended away from solving humanity's pressing problems and towards less important ones such as archiving all available cat videos.

Taxpayer funded free lane

In the decades past, India used the potential of communication technologies like radio and television, providing free services to the masses; using their reach to further causes like national integration, literacy and health awareness. The Internet could represent the logical next step in the usage of telecommunication to further social welfare. Considering that the government already has BSNL’s network at its disposal, there would be no massive infrastructural requirements in order to roll out such services.

The potential applications of a taxpayer-funded free lane are as abundant as they are obvious– disaster and communicable disease alerts, banking, e-governance initiatives. In a volatile situation, the administration could reach citizens easily instead of shutting down communications as they currently do. When Zuckerberg said something is better than nothing, the fact that it was a first-world billionaire saying it was conflated into the statement and the Indian Internet went ballistic. However, the lessons of Akashvani and Doordarshan prove that the outrage was misplaced. The ultimate goal is a truly free Internet that is equal for everyone, but until we can have that, we cannot ignore the fact that Internet is quickly becoming a basic human right.

Published on September 30, 2015

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