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Déjà Vu: Facebook's Net-Neutrality Woes Continue in India

Words by Nithin Coca
Leadership & Transparency

I wrote a few months ago about the backlash in India and Indonesia surrounding Facebook's Internet.org initiative. The service, I might add, is most definitely not a philanthropic endeavor, nor a CSR project, but rather a part of Facebook's corporate-facing side. Now rebranded as 'Free Basics,' it's back in the news, and not for good reasons.

First, let's start with what we agree on. Lack of Internet access is a problem. In a world where having access to technology is a prerequisite for economic opportunities, far too many people lack it. No country has more of these unconnected people than India, the world's second largest country.

Traditionally, governments have been responsible for building, or promoting the building of, the telecommunications infrastructure that gives Internet access to its citizens. In many countries, however, citizens still lack access to basic needs such as sanitation or, in India, electricity. Governments cannot be relied on solely to provide for their citizens, and there is a proactive role that both civil society and corporations can play.

Now here's the problem. Facebook is not an Internet provider, nor is it a telecommunications company; it is a social network service that relies on advertising for approximately 100 percent of its revenue. That model is dependent on Internet users (us) spending time not on the whole Internet, but on Facebook itself. Facebook's latest moves, such as its instant articles scheme, are all focused on one thing: to get users to spend as much time on Facebook as possible.

So guess what app is featured on Facebook's benevolent Free Basics program, which allows for users to get access to a suite of tools for no cost? You guessed it: Facebook. Many see this as a blatant attempt by the Web giant to get users onto its social network and to limit their exposure to the wider Web (aka competitors).

In India, the criticism against Free Basics is coming primarily from civil society and academia, many of whom have universal Internet access as their ultimate goals -- a genuine access that is free of net neutrality issues and doesn't focus on providing access to a single, giant, corporate social network. There are many, many problems with Facebook's model, says Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University:


"Here is the problem with Free Basics: The Internet access on offer is not unrestricted. Facebook and the mobile carriers get to decide what websites people can visit, and Facebook becomes the center of the Internet universe. Zuckerberg compares this limited service to libraries and hospitals. But imagine a private corporation being allowed to decide which books your children could read and which videos they could watch — and to monitor everything that they did. Would you accept that?"

Instead of listening to what opponents have to say and adapting its services, Facebook is fighting back against this criticism with money, rhetoric and some ethically questionable tactics. Firstly, the company is putting big money behind a massive ad campaign in India's capital city, New Delhi, that is raising more than a few eyebrows. It seems more like BP's post-Gulf Disaster greenwashing PR blast than a genuine philanthropic program.


But, even more worrisome, it's using Facebook and Free Basics to flood the Indian government, which is currently determining net neutrality regulations, with messages -- some allegedly blank -- in support of its initiatives and to counter the NGO-driven, million-plus genuine comments in support of a genuine, open internet.

Does this sound familiar? Uber did it – successfully – last year when it opposed New York City's moves to restrict its services, something that I and others called a bad precedent.

Here's a hint, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: When you're spending tons of money on ads and writing op-eds trying to convince people that you're doing something good, while backing it up with DDOS-style message floods, there's a problem.

Image Source: Ester Vargas via Flickr

Nithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

Read more stories by Nithin Coca