It has been less than two months since the nationwide launch of the Free Basics app in India. The smart phone application (formerly known as Internet.org) offers free access to Facebook, Facebook-owned products like WhatsApp, and a select suite of other websites for users who do not pay for mobile data plans.
But the app has already been suspended, at least temporarily, as the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority considers new rules governing network neutrality. Depending on how they're written, the rules could render Free Basics a violation of the policy.
Free Basics, which has been deployed in 30 developing countries across the globe, gives users free access to websites that meet Facebook's technical standards for the application. The application does not give users access to the Internet at large. For open Internet advocates, this undercuts consumer choice and violates the principle of network neutrality, under which Internet providers are to treat all Internet traffic equally. Net neutrality allows users equal access to any website they want to visit, and gives website operators equal opportunities to attract visitors.
— Polarist (@polarist) December 17, 2015
Facebook has responded to the pending regulation with an aggressive ad campaign both online and off. Over the last week, Facebook users across India (and some in the US) upon logging into the site have been greeted with notifications urging them to take action. The Free Basics page on Facebook now leads to a pleading form that asks users to contact the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and voice their support for making Free Basics available in India. The company has also purchased a smattering of billboard advertisements across the country and taken out numerous two-page ads in leading national newspapers, as seen above.
The Indian Internet bites back
Indian netizens and activists have spoken out against the company's actions en masse, protesting heavily on social media, blogs and newspapers.
The grassroots open Internet group, SavetheInternet.in, that has been advocating for net neutrality in India throughout 2015, has launched an email campaign asking users to send letters to TRAI explaining how Free Basics violates net neutrality principles and propagates an inaccurate picture of the Internet for new users by placing it inside the confines of Facebook's application.
Multiple stand-up comedy groups have created videos explaining the regulatory debate and supporting net neutrality, which have gone viral:
Above, the third in a series of videos created by All India Bakchod, in partnership with SavetheInternet.in. Below, a video by East India Comedy.
The issue has also been hotly debated on Twitter, with technology and law experts leading the way.
Internet policy expert and lead staff member of the Center for Internet and Society in Bengaluru Pranesh Prakash tweeted:
— Pranesh Prakash (@pranesh) December 29, 2015
New Delhi-based technology lawyer Mishi Choudhary, who leads the legal team at the Software Freedom Law Center, tweeted:
this so-called philanthropy is nothing but an attempt to buy the de-anonymised packets of the Indian poor at a bulk rate boycott #freebasics
— Mishi Choudhary (@MishiChoudhary) December 25, 2015
The Free Software Movement of India, a non-profit promoting use of free software and its philosophy in India via their local chapters, also has taken the campaign to the streets where the volunteers raised public awareness about Free Basic's adverse side.
Apart from local experts and activists, companies like Reddit, Truecaller and Indian e-commerce platform Paytm have publicly shared their opposition to Facebook's actions.
Facebook targets open Web activists
Facebook is paying close attention to civil society opposition to its activities in India. Across the globe, the company's Free Basics page now opens to a plea for users to contact TRAI, and includes a statement that directly targets open Internet advocates, suggesting that their motives are somehow driven by financial incentives:
…Free Basics is in danger in India. A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all internet services – even if that means 1 billion people can't afford to access any services.
SavetheInternet.in explicitly states in their About page that they are entirely volunteer-run and have no affiliation with any political party in India or elsewhere.
Users also have tweeted screenshots alleging that Facebook is restricting access for individuals sending messages opposing Free Basics. This has not been confirmed, but the tweets have only further stoked public frustration with the company.
— kiranchandra (@kiranychandra) December 26, 2015
Zuckerberg vs. SavetheInternet
On December 28, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg penned a piece in the Times of India arguing that Free Basics will help “achieve digital equality for India,” and claiming that the initiative “isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests.” India represents the world's largest market of Internet users after the US and China, where Facebook remains blocked.
In response, Nikhil Pawa, founder of online portal MediaNama and a volunteer with Savetheinternet.in, authored a critical opinion piece in the same newspaper:
[…] Why hasn’t Facebook chosen the options that do not violate Net Neutrality? For example, in India, Aircel has begun providing full internet access for free at 64 kbps download speed for the first three months….In Bangladesh, Grameenphone users get free data in exchange for watching an advertisement. In Africa, Orange users get 500 MB of free access on buying a $37 handset…
Facebook is being disingenuous — as disingenuous as the company’s promotional programmes for Free Basics to its Indian users — when it says that Free Basics is in conformity with Net Neutrality.
Pawa also quoted Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister of Indian state of Odisha, who wrote to TRAI supporting net neutrality. “If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their right to choose what they think is best for them,” he wrote.
“If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their right to choose what they think is best for them.”
Writing for Quartz, technology critic Alice Truong expressed similar sentiment: “Zuckerberg almost portrays net neutrality as a first-world problem that doesn’t apply to India because having some service is better than no service.”
For Mahesh Murthy, an Indian venture capitalist and self-described net neutrality activist, it all comes down to revenue. On the Wire, Murthy offered untempered criticism of Facebook and Zuckerberg's efforts to appease the country's leaders:
[..] Unlike Facebook, who tried to silently slime this thing through last year when it was called Internet.org, and then are spending about Rs. 100 crores on ads – a third of its India revenue? – to try and con us Indians this year again. This is after we’d worked hard to ban these kind of products, technically called “zero rating apps” last year.[..] This Facebook ad [spread] doesn’t include the full-on Mark Zuckerberg love event put up for our Prime Minister when he visited the US, aimed again at greasing the way for this Free Basics thing through our government.