Going beyond the binary narrative

Visvaksen P | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 30, 2015


Facebook and its opponents are driven by their own agendas. A free tier is a great idea, but it can't be controlled by any one company

In an effort to explain the concept of network neutrality, the Internet has been variously compared to highways, electricity, petrol, cable TV, a bar, taxis, and even an ice cream sundae. Unfortunately, the singular nature of the Internet means that it continues to evade the grasp of accessible analogies and the vacuum created by this confusion is filled with definitions of a neutral network that are driven by various agendas.

The issue has come to the fore once again with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issuing a consultation paper requesting opinions and suggestions on the issue of differential pricing – the ability of internet service providers (ISPs) to charge differing prices based on the type of content being delivered rather than volume as is the current norm.

Equal and opposite forcces

In response to the call for submissions, Facebook embarked upon an aggressive campaign to drum up support for its Free Basics program, which relies on zero rating – offering a certain set of web services for free. The company, which characterises Free Basics as “an open platform” that is designed to act as a “bridge to the wider Internet”, leveraged its massive user base and advertising budget to push its message to the masses.

Opponents, most of whom gathered around the SaveTheInternet banner, decried the underhanded methods employed by the social networking giant, which included sending out confusingly-worded messages about equal access to vast swathes of its user base and even attempting to get non-Indian users to write in to TRAI.

However, the SaveTheInternet folks have been equally vociferous in attempting to get users to attach their names to lengthy pre-drafted messages supporting their point of view. They fear that Free Basics will become a Facebook-controlled walled garden that will result in the creation of multiple carrier-specific bubbles to the detriment of the open Internet. While they have raised a number of legitimate concerns that definitely need highlighting, the fire and brimstone version they have chosen to communicate with users does not convey the full truth.

The bulk of the initial objections dealt with Facebook acting as the gatekeeper for sites and carriers supported by the program. Those objections are now seemingly addressed with the revised Free Basics specifications, which allow all carriers and websites to participate provided they conform to the technical specifications required to keep Free Basics fluid at low speeds. Some concerns still do remain with respect to data retention and secure connections, but Chris Daniels, Vice President of at Facebook has asserted that the company is even willing to hand over gatekeeper duties to industry bodies such as Nasscom or IAMAI in order to ensure transparency.

Everyone has a motive

In light of that move, the argument against Free Basics is reduced to vague prognostications about how a corporation placed in such a powerful position is bound to do something evil in the service of its bottom line. Implicit mistrust of corporations with monopolistic tendencies is a solid strategy, but what the SaveTheInternet campaign hasn’t disclosed in all its communications is that the people behind it, who mostly belong to the nascent Internet startup community, have some skin in the game as well.

While Facebook is playing a long game that is inherently helped by every user who comes online, the majority of startups couldn’t care less about getting disadvantaged users online because they have next to no immediate spending power. For them the path to angel investors and insane valuations lies in figuring out how to deliver pizza and pop music, not providing services to the poor.

Free Basics may or may not benefit the underprivileged, unconnected masses, but it will most definitely disadvantage the startup community by fragmenting their potential user base. This is why it has been in their interest to scream from the rooftops about Mark Zuckerberg’s evil intentions regardless of the fact that his Free Basics program does have what are essentially progressive ideas behind its corporate façade.

The message drafted by the SaveTheInternet campaign suggests advertiser-funded internet access models as pioneered by companies like Gigato and GrameenPhone as alternatives to zero rating. The GrameenPhone offer, which was backed by Mozilla, is now defunct and while Gigato is still alive, one wonders what ads it can profitably show to people below the poverty line in exchange for Internet access. These suggestions sound just as disingenuous as Zuckerberg suggesting in a recent article that a farmer was able to boost his crop yield thanks to Free Basics alone.

Potential pitfalls everywhere

The opposition’s insistence on the full internet for all, however unaffordable it might be for many is just as inequitable as the idea of multiple bubbles that only provide limited portions of the internet. While the doomsday scenario of carrier-specific walled gardens that grow from the dead carcass of the open web is very scary, just as frightening is the steady rise of the cost of data packs and their increasing inaccessibility for the poor.

As with most conflicts in which the opposing parties are wedded to a binary narrative, the ideal solution lies somewhere in between. The American and European experience with network neutrality has shown that differential pricing is clearly anti-competitive – however, while importing their conclusions to our country, most net neutrality advocates seem to have forgotten that zero rating was never debated in the West.

A third option

The idea of a basic free tier is compelling, but allowing a private corporation to control it invites conspiracy. A zero-rated tier, regulated and controlled by the government through an agency like TRAI, could serve the purpose of universal connectivity while preventing a Facebook monopoly. All other forms of differential pricing clearly must go unless we want to allow ISPs to start extorting Internet companies in order to deliver their content.

Unfortunately, with two massive stacks of responses, each decrying the other, it seems that impossible that TRAI will come up with an imaginative solution that dissatisfies both interested parties and benefits the voiceless masses instead.

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Published on December 30, 2015
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