As the Internet grows increasingly essential, governments must face decisions about if and how the government should regulate the Internet. Growing monopolization amongst the ‘Internet Giants’ like Google and Facebook threatens to destroy the open architecture of the Internet. Countries like India, Egypt, South Africa, and others have been grappling with the question of net neutrality, as their markets continue to expand and in light of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to expand his influence in these emerging markets by offering a service called ‘Free Basic’. The aim of Free Basic is to offer access to basic websites by providing mobile data for free for specific sites. Free Basic, at first glance, permits those unable to afford cellular data with access to basic sites for free. India is Facebook’s second largest potential market after the U.S.A., due to expansive mobile use and immense population. India also suffers from the fact that 30 percent of Indians live below the poverty. Mark Zuckerberg has expressed that Free Basic was designed to bring more Indians online by offering Reliance customers complimentary access to a range of Internet sites. So why did the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) pass an order that included the ban of Free Basic on February 8, 2016?
The TRAI order addressed concerns about the regulation of zero-rated services—that is, the practice where certain content providers and service providers enter into an agreement to provide subsidized access to certain content. Net neutrality activists in India mobilized against Free Basic, in order to protect plurality and neutrality with regard to Internet content. The ‘Save the Internet’ movement taken up by Indian activists demonstrates a deep concern for internet freedom, and further reveals the need for net neutrality in order to develop the potential for mobilization through social media outlets.
The TRAI responded to the net neutrality activists with support by ordering that service providers should not charge different rates for accessing different types of content on the Internet and maintained that the protection of net neutrality principles are an integral part of keeping the internet as a public resource. The TRAI expressed that, “In India, given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting TSPs shape the users’ internet experience”.
What this means is that Free Basic would be able to design the knowledge and outlook of its users by limiting their access to the sites selected by the provider. The content that would be privileged under Free Basic by Facebook includes Bing, Wikipedia, ESPN, Accuweather, BBC News, and dictionary.com; however, major sites like YouTube, Google, Amazon, LinkedIn, and Twitter are excluded from the service. Unsurprisingly, Google and Amazon are some of Facebook’s biggest rivals as far as the ‘Internet Giants’ go. As Mumbai-based venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy points out, “[Free Basic] primarily serves Facebook’s interests rather than upholding the idea of connectivity as a basic human right”.
According to advocates for net neutrality and critics of the service, the motivations and effects of Free Basic will turn service providers into “gatekeepers” of the Internet—transforming the open architecture of the Internet into a private venture, in which certain content is privileged over others, and certain content is privileged for others. Zuckerberg contends that the service is meant to fulfill his goal of universal digital access. While activists for net neutrality argue that all Internet content should be treated equally, rather than privileging certain types of content over others. While a service like Free Basic provides poorer people access to low cost content, allowing differential rates perpetuates monopolies in the Internet, thereby largely benefitting Internet giants like Facebook and Google and negatively affecting smaller content providers. In this way, while Free Basic would open up access to users, it would simultaneously limit the access that those users have.
Facebook clearly has an interest in profiting from Free Basic far beyond providing universal digital access. Free Basic is a step toward homogenization of the Internet. Allowing for differential pricing, rather than protecting the principle of network neutrality, would significantly limit the different ways in which people use the Internet. Monopolization of Internet space leads to an asymmetry of information between service providers and users, and depletes the internet of a diversity of content that users have access to when the principle of net neutrality is protected.
Some have theorized that Free Basic is Facebook’s economic strategy in so-called emerging markets. Tech analysts agree that gaining new users is essential for Facebook’s business plan in emerging markets—and, given that India has such a large population and that China has already closed its doors to Facebook, the decision by the TRAI to protect network neutrality might mean that Zuckerberg will have to continue to work to gain millions of new Facebook users through other means than providing the service of Free Basic. Though the Free Basics model has been implemented in Colombia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Mexico, India isn’t the only country that has demonstrated a desire to protect the principle of network neutrality. Egypt has also suspended the Free Basic program, and similar questions regarding the importance of maintaining net neutrality are being asked in South Africa.
Though questions about internet connectivity and access are important considerations, offering Facebook a way to expand its monopoly beyond the massive framework of Facebook itself is not the answer. The internet must be safeguarded as a space in which an endless variety of content can be accessed, and the principle of net neutrality should not be sacrificed in order to smoke screen the furthering of Facebook’s monopolization. However, both sides of these issues raise important questions for the present and the future of the role of the internet in everyday society at large. How can we expand affordable access to the internet without sacrificing diversity of content and without allowing the private sector to design a public resource for its profit?