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Free Basics by Facebook and Net Neutrality

Ive been a silent observer in the whole Net Neutrality fracas over the past several months here in India and clearly over many years in the US. I was not even aware of it when it was raging in the US. So needless to say Im a little late to the party. However, its inescapable now what with full page ads in the newspapers and violent responses by the net neutrality proponents.

The interesting thing is most of the people I talk to can’t really explain net neutrality and how a service like Free Basics or Airtel Zero will affect them in the future. Either I keep very poor company or the whole concept, like all public interest topics, is so blown out of context that no one really fully understands the subject well enough to be able to take a measured stand. Now I know my friends and connections are not dumb. So it must be the latter.

I thought I’d write down my understanding of it and see if I could capture the key elements of the debate.

  1. Net Neutrality is the concept that the nature of data flowing through a pipe cannot be the basis for the charges applied to the usage of the pipe. For instance, a pipe laying company (like Airtel or Aircel or Vodaphone) cannot charge more (or less or free) for certain kinds of data – like that generated by WhatsApp, a chat software company, or Youtube, a video streaming service, because of the nature of the data that those services provide. That is, the pipe itself is dumb and cannot or should not distinguish between the types of data packets that flow through it. This comes from a principle called the End-to-End principle which says that protocol (nature of data – whether its video, audio, text, etc.) distinctions have to be made at the end points  and closest to the source or destination of the data (the software or device that creates or receives the data) and not by the pipe. This makes sense because all the work of providing a great chat experience was done by the engineers at WhatsApp, and not by the engineers at the ISP.
  2. Free Basics is a bundle of specific sites provided by Facebook, a social networking site. This bundle is added to a basic phone service subscription and provided free of charge – without having to buy a separate Internet access plan. A phone or tablet that you use to access Free Basics is one end point. To access Free Basics you will configure your device in the same way as you would access internet. As far as your device is concerned, it thinks it is connecting to internet. The ISP then tells your device it is connected to internet but blocks off all sites except those that are in the Free Basics bundle – one of which includes Facebook. (A violation of the End-to-End principle)

Now, the debate – is Free Basics a violation of the principle of Net Neutrality?

The debate in the US revolved around Comcast, an ISP, charging differentially for certain services. In India, several telcos tried to bundle WhatsApp only phone plans. Some – apparently Airtel – tried to throttle down high bandwidth services like Youtube and internet telephony providers like Skype. Clearly these are restrictive trade practices – since these are not services the ISPs themselves own and are akin to monopolisation or at the very least oligopolisation.

The crux of the opposition to Free Basics lies around the fact that if the ISPs have an option to favour or block certain sites, that option can be monetised by the ISPs in the form of distribution charges (in cash or in kind) in the future. This (the idea of monetising services) in itself is aligned with the principle of commerce or capitalism – which the entire world has now come to accept as the preferred model of economics. Also the coexistence of open source and commercial software has shown that ‘free or open’ is not the sole domain of innovation.

The Battle today

Interestingly, Facebook, which is doing a lot to promote Free Basics is taking a seemingly under hand approach. Facebook is positioning Free Basics as a noble, charitable initiative of getting more people online. However, all that Free Basics provides is access to Facebook – one social network among the many (albeit the largest). In terms of search however, there is no access to Google which is the largest search engine of the day. This positioning is probably what is causing a majority of bile in the arguments of the net neutrality proponents that see this as a blatant misrepresentation of the more commercial intent of the Free Basics service – that is to increase Facebook users. Calling the service Internet.Org is one example of how it was misrepresented.

Like all public interest debates, the battle has now descended into a shouting match. Facebook resorting to full page ads claiming its holier-than-though position while the net neutrality commentators like Mahesh Murthy, a venture capitalist known for being outspoken, writing highly opinionated, riddled with adjectives, generalisations and emotional pieces in social media (essentially correct but so distracting as to lose reason).

Personally, I am strongly opposed to Facebook’s Free Basics as it is a misrepresentation of the true commercial interests and therefore to be viewed with suspicion. Am I OPPOSED or FOR Net neutrality? Leaning towards FOR – but not decided yet.

Sandilya Venkatesh

Sandilya "Sandy" Venkatesh is a Technology marketing professional and entrepreneur with over 20 years experience selling enterprise IT services to clients both in India and the US. He previously founded and built Cepios Software into a 50 man company . He believes in fitness as a lifestyle and is an avid sprinter, Squash player, Shuttler and Long distance runner.

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