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Spotlight on India’s Internet: Facebook’s Free Basics or Basic Failure?

March 28, 2016


Minnie Ray Chaudhury

The following Tweet was posted by Marc Andreessen, a member of the Board of Directors of Facebook, in response to India’s ban on differential pricing for Internet services on February 8, 2016.

tweet grab copy

While the post was hastily removed and replaced by an apology, the statement draws into focus the battle between net neutrality and Facebook that has been taking place in India over the past year.

For quite some time, Facebook has provided a voice to those who may otherwise have none, such as women in India who use Facebook to speak in unison about controversial topics. Seemingly aware of Facebook’s impact, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg launched After the launch in February 2015, Zuckerberg revealed his intentions of connecting the billion people in India without Internet, giving them better access to “free basic internet services for health, education, jobs, and communication.”

While Zuckerberg’s intentions seemed genuine, caused immediate controversy as people began realizing that’s definition of “Internet” was fairly limited. Zuckerberg’s project offered less than 200 websites, selected based on the services that were believed to be most useful to the public. Over the next few months, bloggers, journalists, and professors expressed their distrust of the service, pointing out flaws in Zuckerberg’s campaign.

For example, the majority of websites are in English but the majority of people in India are literate in their local and regional languages, not English. Ignorance of India’s linguistic reality contradicts Zuckerberg’s initial intentions of increasing communication across India with the rest of the world, when many of his target demographics in India are not literate in English. Most importantly, however, violates the concept of net neutrality by not giving access to the entirety of the Internet. Such limited access is curious, especially in light of Zuckerberg’s support of net neutrality in the United States. Since Zuckerberg has seemingly changed his definition of net neutrality for the impoverished populations of India, many net neutrality activists in India to adopted the slogan “poor internet for poor people.

Seeing the rising concern over the plan, Facebook changed their campaign, replacing with Free Basics in September 2015—suggesting to the Indian public that they will be provided with free basic Internet services. In response to the controversy, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) announced that they would make a decision regarding whether or not Free Basics would be allowed to remain in India. Beginning in December 2015, extending to early January, TRAI collected thousands of comments from the Indian public, as well as businesses, in an effort to gauge public attitudes and needs.

India’s outrage towards Free Basics surprised Zuckerberg. In response to the controversy, Zuckerberg began a campaign to change public opinion. In a Times of India blog post, Zuckerberg wrote about his disappointment in the Indian people for not recognizing the importance of providing free services to the poor of India. He used a case study of a Maharahstran farmer whose livelihood was drastically improved by the use of a weather app to predict how the monsoon season affected his crops. Zuckerberg insisted in this post that not only did Facebook support net neutrality, but that it was also helping to progress Indian society through Free Basics. Zuckerberg concluded this plea to the Indian people by urging Indians to assess the facts over fiction and express their support of Free Basics to TRAI.

To make supporting Free Basics even easier, Zuckerberg provided Indians with an email template, to be signed and sent to TRAI. This template expressed support for Free Basics as a helpful aid to the Indian people, while also supporting net neutrality. It further stated that banning the service would hurt the most vulnerable population in India. This statement was provided to Indians through their Facebook accounts and additionally notified Indians when their friends had signed the same document. It was proven, however, that the notification system provided people notifications that the statement had been signed whether or not their friends had actually signed the document.

Despite the lengths Facebook went to misinform the Indian public about their intentions, TRAI released their ban on differential pricing on Internet services. While Zuckerberg insists that giving access to the whole of the Internet to the impoverished is not a sustainable idea, others don’t see that as being an issue. As Internet penetration continues to soar in India, it is not unreasonable to believe that even the most remote locations will someday be able to connect.

Zuckerberg’s model of providing free Internet access to the rural poor of India is even more problematic when contrasted with Mozilla’s model in Bangladesh. There, Mozilla partnered with GrameenPhone and released a new mobile phone in 2014. Users can receive free data on these phones. To receive free data, users must access the phone’s marketplace app and view advertisements. Users of this mobile device are allowed access to the whole of the Internet as long as they are using Mozilla. Providing this service allows affordable access to the Internet without violating net neutrality.

Whether this is a case of neo-colonialism, or just plain Internet feudalism, may not be a practical question to explore. Although Zuckerberg’s campaign was a legitimate catastrophe, he voiced ideas that are indeed important for big companies and the Indian people to think about. As the middle class continues to rise, so will the frustration over lack of access. While it is inevitable that access will have to increase over time, the question of how it should happen will become more pressing. Facebook and Zuckerberg have successfully demonstrated the lack of understanding the members of the elite western population have of India, her culture, and people.

Yet this is not a case in isolation, as many such initiatives have failed countless times before. Literature on information and communication technologies for development (ICTD) documents dozens of such cases where Western countries have tried and failed to give aid to developing nations by providing access to ICTs. Their ignorance over the context of local situations and cultures inevitably leads to failure. Hopefully, in the future, more companies will take lessons from these failures and successes and provide impoverished populations with more practical initiatives.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.