Reining in platforms like Facebook

In December 2015 the founder and Chief Executive of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote passionately in The Times of India why it was important to give free access to internet. He was promoting the idea of ‘Free Basics’ launched by Facebook. It would give free access to basic internet services to all Indians. No charge would be applied for data use by the telecom company to access Facebook and a few other sites. Facebook would pay directly to the telecom company for the data. It was what he called a bridge to full internet access. It would close the digital divide. It would lead to digital equality. He claimed that full internet access would lift millions out of poverty. He compared this free service to provision of free basic health or education. It was a persuasive pitch.

Unfortunately for him, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) turned it down. Why would TRAI turn down a free service being offered by the social media giant? The answer is subtle but very important. While some free access to internet is better than no access, the Facebook free offer was giving access to only certain websites. Thus the poor who opted for Free Basics would be able to roam only where Facebook allowed them to roam. This curtails a more basic kind of freedom, i.e. freedom to roam the internet. And all other smaller websites would have to pay Facebook to enter this “walled garden”. This is opposite to the principle of net neutrality. A profitmaking organisation like Facebook was offering “free services” because it hoped to make those free customers become sticky and paying customers, in the future. It was like a “foot in the door” policy, giving freebies in the beginning, that any monopoly uses to oust competitors. Once it has hundreds of millions of users inside the “walled garden”, it would charge monopoly pricing to those who wanted to access those customers. It would become a gatekeeper to a privately owned corner of the internet. Thanks to a nationwide people’s campaign for net neutrality, the Facebook plan for Free Basics failed.

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