How Facebook slyly got you to support Free Basics

Free Basics in India is FB's master plan to offer free access to Internet to those who are still not on the web by offering them access to free basic services including Facebook

Users who logged on to Facebook on Thursday morning were greeted by a pop-up message asking them to support to the Free Basics plan. Free Basics in India is Facebook’s master plan to offer free access to Internet to those who are still not on the web, by offering them access to free basic services including, unsurprisingly, Facebook.

A screenshot of the Free Basics plan message on Facebook
A screenshot of the Free Basics plan message on Facebook

Those companies/services, who wish to be a part of the plan are required to approach Facebook to be included in Free Basics. So, what’s the problem in showing a little support to such a plan? Here’s what: If you are one of those who checked the box, you have automatically become one of those whose views have gone to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India supporting Facebook’s move, which critics say goes against net neutrality.

Your mail to TRAI will say, "I support Free Basics and digital equality for India." There's more. Once you click this button, not only will your mail go to TRAI, all your Facebook friends will get this notification, and if they too sign it, their friends and so on. TRAI will be flooded with this pre-written message supporting Free Basics, which if approved will be a big blow to net neutrality claim critics.

"Most people signed the petition hoping it’s a campaign to create Internet awareness in India, but it wasn't," says Nikhil Pahwa, one of the early crusaders of Net Neutrality in India. "This a clear manipulation on behalf of Facebook to gain support for its Free Basics plan."

Pahwa said Free Basics violates the freedom and openness of the Internet, the two factors that have played a key role in its success and popularity. “Free Basics is not about free Internet, it’s about Facebook sucking the Internet into their platform, and making people think that Facebook is Internet. It’s also a tool for it to strengthen its services and target Indians who are not using Internet. You have to bear in mind that the data that gets accessed in Free Basics is accessible to Facebook as well. It may not be personally identifiable, but it’s crucial data."

Questions are also being asked of TRAI. It published a consultation paper in May, and responses were closed. Critics ask why it has opened another round of consultations now, wondering if it is an attempt to skew the field in favour of Facebook.

According to a report by Internet and Mobile Association of India, India had 354 million internet users by June 2015, 60 per cent of whom (213 million) are on mobile. Facebook already has more than 125 million users in India, and with Free Basics in India, it hopes to reach out to those using mobile Internet as well as those not part of it.

Facebook's plan, however, has received opposition not only from netizens but also some of the well-known figures of technology including Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web who criticised its plans in September this year, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who believes that a neutral net is important for young companies to survive and for a competitive market.

Opposition to the Thursday move came from Indian twitterati including musicians like Vishal Dadlani (@VishalDadlani) who have urged Facebookers to not take part in the campaign, but instead send a message to TRAI. “Facebook’s new trick to shut down #NetNeutrality in India. Send a msg to TRAI, but tell them we DON'T want this!” he tweeted.

This is not the first time Facebook has created a controversy around Net Neutrality or used its reach to its advantage. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, arrived in India in September last year, Facebook created a ‘Digital India’ tool, which allowed users to change their profile picture. But some users alleged the tool was used to show support for (Free Basics plan). In the past, Facebook has also been criticised for conducting opaque polls online about

But despite the opposition, Facebook responded to mid-day’s questions with a standard reply from a spokesperson. “This campaign gives people the opportunity to support digital equality in India. It lets people speak in support of the one billion people in India who remain unconnected, and lets them participate in the public debate that is being held by The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on differential pricing for data services. And it gives them the opportunity to support Free Basics, which is proven to bring more people online and accelerate full internet adoption,” a Facebook spokesperson replied in response to our questions on Free Basics in India.

Make a note
TRAI is taking written comments on net neutrality till December 30, and counter comments by January 7 from various stakeholders.

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