Give Free Basics a chance!
Mark Zuckerberg wants to get ‘all of the world’s population online and on Facebook’. In pursuit of his dream to connect the unconnected, the iconic founder of Facebook is causing a storm of protests. India’s telecom regulator TRAI recently suspended Facebook and telecom service provider, RCom’s Free Basics offering. Facebook’s Internet.Org rebranded as Free Basics is now being infamously referred to as the East India Company of the Internet age with its pro-underprivileged positioning being labeled a charade. Zuckerberg’s dream is said to be in conflict with Net Neutrality, a concept that details commitment to keep the Internet open with equal access to all. Facebook is also facing sharp criticism for its online campaign to garner support for Free Basics where users click a prompt-based link to send an email to TRAI in support of Free Basics. TRAI had called for wider public consultation on the issue. Now, after Facebook’s campaign, the regulator has extended the deadline to January 7 in order to have a more meaningful debate -- advising submission of detailed arguments instead of sending template mails in support. The consultation is part of TRAI’s public consultation on ‘Regulating the OTTs’. Net Neutrality is one of the heated public debates that India has taken with it into the Year 2016. A number of issues such as access, speed, differential pricing are all getting mixed up and Zuckerberg has gone hoarse explaining that Free Basics does not violate Net Neutrality. The next billion in India needs to get online and participate in the digital led economic growth. ‘Some access is better than no access’— is an appealing argument. However, a digital-led growth is not just a function of a zero-rated Internet access in India. There are other pieces such as vernacular mandated handsets, local manufacturing, and efficient rollout of the nationwide optic fibre network, entrepreneur eco-system… all of those are work-in-progress. Besides, Internet is a utility and should be treated like one, just as electricity grid. So, when a leader like Nandan Nilekani argues for government intervention with SIM and data use subsidy linked to aadhar card it makes sense from welfare perspective. And it is indeed government’s job to look after those objectives. But, in the free market ecosystem many things co-exist in fine balance. Giving Free Basics a measured chance cannot quite hurt ‘Digital India’ objectives, as the choice to use or not use Free Basics would still be with the consumer. And consumers are discerning people. India is a country that communicated with “missed call phenomena” it would be interesting to see what the country does with Free Basics, as such. The concern that different routes to Net Neutrality could seriously impact overall outcomes with adverse results for the fledgling Internet economy of India could be quite misplaced. Give Free Basics a chance. I would rather appreciate a focus on what these OTTs do with consumer data. Now, with Internet of Things also taking off, a framework that protects and regulates consumer data usage should get the required attention. OTTs should prepare to be regulated, primarily in that context. After all the whole fight is for that data mine. Isn’t it?