“Connectivity is a human right”. This is what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been harping since the debate about net neutrality and free basics broke out. Free Basics is nothing but a re branded Internet.org, a Facebook operation whereby partnering with local telcos in the developing countries the company ( Facebook) aims to provide free internet access.  The free internet access shall be limited to Facebook, Whats App( which is owned by Facebook) and a few other carefully selected websites and online services.

The concept of Free Basics has faced a strong backlash in India. Mark Zuckerberg seems to be under all sorts of pressure.  The Facebook owner has left no stone unturned in order to garner support for implementing the concept of Free Basics in India. Facebook has come out all guns blazing. From full page newspaper ads to Television ad campaigns to billboards, Mark Zuckerberg has tried just about everything. Yet the company is facing the music. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India debates whether telecom operators across the country should be allowed to offer different services at a variable price or whether the concept of Net Neutrality should be brought into force.

In a recent article published in The Times of India, Zuckerberg claims that those opposing the concept of Free Basics are actually hurting the poor by curtailing their opportunity to access information. “He argued that for every 10 people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of the shackles of poverty” Now, this statement is not backed by a research. “The critics of Free Basics should remember that everything we are doing aims to serve the poor and the underprivileged people. It is not about Facebook’s commercial interests”, Zuckerberg was quoted as saying.

Not a charity:

Despite his claims, the concept of Free Basics is contrary to the whole idea of Net Neutrality by offering access to some handpicked sites and not all. On paper, the service is claimed to be open to any app but in practice, the submission guidelines won’t allow Javascript, Flash, Large images etc. Furthermore, the service will also rule out secure connections using HTTP’s. Ruling out of secure connections can be dangerous because if this happens then Free Basics will be able to read all the data passing through the platform.

No convincing Body:

There is no convincing body of peer reviewed evidence to suggest internet access drives the poor and underprivileged people out of poverty. India has a literacy rate of somewhere around 74%.  Out of the total percentage of people who can read and write, only a smaller proportion of people can speak and understand English.  Furthermore, the people who can speak and understand English don’t happen to be the poorest citizens of the country. English language happens to be the most predominant language over the internet. It implies that the concept of Free Basics is not suitable for the poorest strata of the society.


Commercial in nature and context:

The claim that Free Basics in not in the company’s commercial interests happens to be the most outrageous and contradictory. By offering free internet access, Free Basics is likely to disrupt the flow of the market. It’ll allow Facebook to gain a monopoly that can benefit from the network effects of a growing user base. Expanding audiences and widening consumer base happens to be directly proportional to a rise in revenue generation for firms. A big company like Facebook is likely to have incredibly deep pockets. So, one can expect that indigenous competitors are bound to bite the dust before they even begin.

Poverty is way more than just no internet:

India will not always low levels of internet penetration across villages and rural areas, in fact the rate of internet penetration in has grown quite significantly in the recent past. Facebook inc considers this as an opportunity to create monopoly in India. Create a monopoly before other competitors move in. Masterstroke Mr. Zuckerberg!. There has been a considerable amount of research on how the poorest of the poor strata of the society can have access to good quality healthcare, education and of course information through internet access. If Zuckerberg considers internet access as one of the key factors influencing development, then why on earth is he offering a restricted version?

While addressing the issue, Zuckerberg promptly asked: “Who could possibly be against this?” This is an absolutely right question but Free Basics is certainly not the right answer to this question. Free Basics can be seen as an integral part of the business strategy of one of the biggest internet corporate but it cannot be considered as an act of selfless charity.

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