Free Basics by Facebook

The Free Basics experiment by Facebook in India has been called off. It was a failure.

People who know me well would expect me to reiterate here that I strongly support “net neutrality”. The Free Basics offering by Facebook went against the concept of net neutrality, and so was rejected by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which is the equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the U.S. Looks logical, right ?

Net neutrality assumes that all net users would have equal access to all web sites and web content across the internet. Free Basics offered text-only access to specific websites on simple (basic) phones for free, which meant that other websites would not be that easily accessible to the new users of internet across India.

What does this mean ? Facebook wanted to offer “free” internet access to millions of poor people across India via the Free Basics program. That has now been banned based on the principle of net neutrality by TRAI.

Do I agree with this ban ? Freedom loving activists would expect me to agree (based on the principles that I have espoused via this blog website of mine).

But I do not agree.

The Government machinery in India is not capable of providing free internet access to a billion Indians. The Government desperately needs private investments to kickstart the internet economy. Here, I am not talking about the advanced startups of Bangalore and the thousands of always “switched-on” engineers and professionals and educated folks who are connected to the internet most of the time. I am talking here about the millions who live in remote villages which do not sometimes even have electricity. How are they going to be connected ? Facebook offered various solutions to this seemingly intractable problem – things like balloons beaming internet to the masses, WiFi networks in remote parts and in railway stations, et al. This is a workable proposition with funds coming in from one of the largest capitalized corporations in the world. Why would we refuse that investment ? Do we have an alternate plan to connect these millions of people ? What is that plan ?

No corporate investment is made with a 100% altruistic intent. Corporations will have some objective which would ride on the “connected” initiative for instance. In the case of Facebook, apparently it is is to entice the millions of people towards its web assets and related companies’ assets. In essence, Facebook wants to be the door opener in a limited sense, to the masses. People will instantly recognize Facebook brand, and that is invaluable to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, its founder.

Well, well, governments do not like such control by a private corporation. And, who is Facebook’s partner in India ? It is Reliance Communications, run by the billionaire Anil Ambani, which is known to seek control anway in anything it operates in. Facebook + Reliance – a strong “control” mechanism, which would have singular access to millions of new Indians who are trying to get on to the internet.

This is a salivating proposition by any measure.

Nevertheless, India should not have turned down Facebook’s Free Basics program. TRAI could have negotiated with Facebook, irrespective of the activist driven loudspeakers all over the country trying to shout down the initiative. India lost a great opportunity, and now has to wait for Facebook, Google and Microsoft to come up with other means to connect the masses.

Things could have been different, but this is India. It is unique. And, it operates democratically, sometimes in an unfortunate manner.

There goes to Free Basics – even if it operates in over 30 other countries, Indis is the crown jewel that Facebook and its founder seek every day. It is the next frontier for the internet.


Vijay Srinivasan
13th February 2016


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