Facebook’s Free Basics is Not About Bringing More People Online, It is About User Acquisition

by mr november

Access to Internet ought to be a right for every human on this planet. There has been nothing like Internet in human history. It has the extraordinary power to connect everyone and disseminate information at lightning speed. It can influence thought, opinion, policy and governance at any level. But connecting more people to the Internet is a challenge full of problems – economic and otherwise.

Facebook launched Internet.org in 2013 with the aim to bring more people online, or at least that’s what Mark Zuckerberg claims. Over the last three years it has launched in about thirty six countries including India, but the service is temporarily suspended. Facebook has faced criticism from all angles that Internet.org, renamed (re-branded) as Free Basics, violates principles of Network Neutrality. I agree with this criticism. But in this article I am not concerned with net neutrality. Rather I am concerned with what Zuckerberg claims Free Basics does. But before that:

How do we bring more people online?

“Online” means the network. The network which we know as Internet, through which we access websites, applications, email, and so on. To get on to the network, a person needs a device, an accessible node of the network (think of your WiFi access point at home, or the LAN cable at office, or a cellular data connection on your phone), and money to afford both the device and the cost (service charges like data plans and rates) of connecting to the network.

The network has reached most cities, urban agglomerations and towns of the world through a mixture of different kinds cable networks (under the sea, under the ground, above ground) and also through wireless networks created by radio waves between cellular towers and even satellites. Wireless networks work in different bands (2G, 3G, 4G) each with increasing connection strength and speed.

People with a certain level of purchasing power can afford both the device that can connect to the network and the service charges or rates of the provider (like Airtel, MTNL, Spectranet, Reliance and so on). Most of the people who are connected to the network, people like you and me, live in cities. We are part of the mainstream economy, so we have the purchasing power required. Ten – fifteen years ago, both the device and the data rates were costly. But as infrastructure came up, business models became clear, investments flowed in, the costs came down, more people connected to the network generating revenue for device manufacturers, service providers and governments.

Some say that the reach of the network has increased steadily, and that more and more people have joined the network. But, in developing countries like ours, this reach and these people are still limited to urban centres. Cost of devices have come down significantly over the years and 2G services are also available in many regions outside urban centres, but today’s websites and applications are heavy – they consume more bytes – which means that on 2G they don’t work smoothly. And of course, many parts of the country have no network.

To sum up, the challenges we are facing to make Internet accessible to more people are:

1. Reduce cost of smart phones, laptops, desktops and any other devices capable of connecting to the network.

2. Create more access points to the network, that is, increase telecommunication infrastructure.

3. Reduce cost of data plans, broadband plans and internet packs.

Facebook’s Free Basics (or Internet.org as it was earlier called) unfortunately does NOT at all work on any of the issues. In fact it depends on the currently existing infrastructure to run anyway! This recent article talks about the service as just one part of a host of solutions that can increase access. I do not understand how it contributes to resolving any of the challenges above?

Free Basics does reduce the amount of data required to access a selected service, but Zuckerberg’s premise is limited. I quote: “By introducing people to the benefits of the internet through these websites, we hope to bring more people online and help improve their lives.” Or in other words, Facebook thinks that people who are not connected to the network just do not know the benefits of the world wide web, so once they get a taste of a small part of it they will surely get online. Facebook even uses evidence that does not yet exist to establish that once people see the benefits they immediately opt for a data plan and access the whole Internet.

NO.

I am sorry but that is not the problem. Getting online is EXPENSIVE. People cannot afford it and that is the reason they are not online. Once they get a taste of a small selected slice of the internet, they will still not connect to the internet because it is expensive. If they had the money they would have already. The assumption that they just don’t know the benefits of the internet is foolish and point blank elitist. The very existence of e-Panchayats, State run apps for farmers (Digital Mandi, mKisan) and so on tells us that there are indeed a few people in rural districts, gram panchayats, villages using internet. There are thousands of non-profits and non-government organizations in this country taking internet based services to villages. People living rural areas are smart enough (smarter than us I’d say) to know about internet and its benefits. The recent Khabar Lahariya video proves the same. The women are asking for Google and YouTube for internet to be beneficial to them. The reason they and most people outside urban areas are not online is simply because it is EXPENSIVE and not because they don’t know the benefits of being online.

User Acquisition is Profitable.

I doubt that Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg do not know this reality, though. And yet they (the company and the individual) are marketing Free Basics as a solution to increase access to Internet. From the way it is all put, it seems that this is a noble cause.

But unlike other noble causes intended for social good, Mark Zuckerberg’s response to all the criticism was a) “open” the platform to other developers and still reserve the right to approve or reject submissions, b) re-brand the name of the cause and c) spend a whole lot of money on advertising. From billboards, full page newspapers ad in big dailies, SMS campaigns, to Facebook notifications and generating fake emails to TRAI; he has literally tried to shove this ‘good cause’ down our throats. Why?? All this money could have gone to actually increasing telecommunication infrastructure, or even given/donate to non-government or government body. Unless of course, this money was (or is) an investment.

There are many people and organizations that have great ideas intended to make people’s lives better. But I do not recall any one of them shoving it down someone else’s throat. If your idea is criticized, you don’t give up on your intentions of course, but rather you refine your idea or even abandon it and take up a different one. Unless.. there is profit to be made from your idea.

Internet today is vastly different from what it was meant to be. The global economic system that we, the upper classes, consent to initially could not make sense of this phenomenon (hence the dot-com bubble that later burst) and has only come up with one major ‘viable’ financial model. Which is based on the number of users visiting your website (or using your application or platform). The more the number of users using your website, app or platform the more financial viable you are. Facebook and Google are winning this game.

Growth for both these giants is dependent on constantly expanding their user base. For Facebook, it’s the user generated content and their profiles that matters. Imagine if tomorrow you, your friends and their friends stopped posting updates on Facebook. The company could easily crash because the ads they run that bring in the revenue, depend on your content. It makes perfect business sense to buy-out smaller Internet technology companies (Instagram, Whatsapp). Controlling news feeds of users also helps, because then you control what content reaches whom, making ad delivery more efficient and targeted. Facebook has also repeatedly stabbed open and free software in the back (free as in ‘freedom’ and not free of charge). Their platform is not open like they claim, and just as a reminder: much of their internal infrastructure was or is based on open source software. And too many social networks is also a problem, no wonder they never supported ideas like OpenSocial, an open standard to run social networks (if this had thrived by the way, social networking would have been much more enjoyable. One could have just picked up their profile and all their content and moved to a different network!)

To sum up, user acquisition online is important for business today, and that explains Facebook’s Free Basics campaign.

Finally…

The Internet is a mess today. Global Capitalism has punctured holes into its heart. Some fellow engineers, information technology professionals and experts may disagree with me but some don’t. Revolutionary peer-to-peer network models have been pushed out by private and state capital and the inefficient top-down (server-client) models are booming, just because it is easier put a value to information in the latter case.

For problems like Internet access, solutions coming from Google and Facebook cannot and should not be accepted without thorough scrutiny, because the very economic system within which these companies flourish, and these ideas exist, is unsustainable, divisive and pro-rich. They are not providing solutions anyway, these are just strategies for business expansion. Issues of surveillance and privacy surround all this as well and we have not even touched them in this particular debate yet.

Nonetheless it is important that more and more people connect to the network. Because Internet is the only global tool that can be powerful enough to revolutionize social, economic and political systems. I say ‘can be’ because in its current state it is not the tool that can do so. Its inherent power has been taken over by large private corporations and authoritarian governments.

That said – pragmatically speaking – we ought to recognize what Free Basics really is. Or what it is not: a solution to bring more people online.

#TheEmptyChair: what Bill Cosby’s victims have taught us about rape culture

by slowsho

NEWYORK-MAG-COVER-JULY-2015_LEAD

Originally written the week of July 26, when the article was published.

If there’s one thing you need to take away from the New York Mag cover story ‘Cosby: The Women’, it’s that this is what rape culture does to women, to generations of women.

This is what happens when we don’t believe women, when we give the benefit of the doubt to powerful men because their public image is one of benevolence, and family feel-goodness.

This is what happens when a woman doesn’t feel safe enough to talk to the law, because powerful people will get what they want.

And let’s be clear about this: for a long time, Cosby did. He has squashed cases, tried to silence women with money and has used all the means at his disposal to shame them into silence.

The background

Bill Cosby has been a Hollywood fixture forever, but he is most famous for playing the beloved patriarch Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, a show that centred on ordinary family life in an upper middle class black family. It spoke of race, certainly, but subtly. Cosby became the jovial, loveable black father figure in American culture.

As a kid growing up in small-town, middle-class India, Cosby was likely one of the first few black men on my television screen – at least one of the first few adored and accoladed, instead of typecast in minor movie roles as ‘the angry black guy’ or ‘the sassy black woman’.

I grew up watching Kids Say the Darndest Things with my mother. Over the years, whenever we travelled to big cities, my mother and I would scour bookshops for – among other books – any of Cosby’s many thin volumes.

The Cosby Show, in fact, came last for us, when I had moved away from home, but not before teaching my mom how to find TV shows on the internet.

Just around the time my mother was gushing about the Huxtable family did the stories rape accusations start to register in my life, from the articles people shared, to discussions among comedians (most notably Hannibal Buress, who famously called Cosby a rapist during a show). I did what everyone did initially – like Time’s Justin Woreland has said, I pushed the accusations to the back of my mind.

I was a bad feminist; like most people, I initially couldn’t imagine that this seemingly adorable man could have done all that they were saying. It wasn’t even like he was a central cultural icon for me – I just found it so hard to fathom for the first few days.

Then I started to read. There was the Vanity Fair article by Beverly Johnson, who is also in the NY Mag piece. Then supermodel Janice Dickinson talked about the time Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982.

As one woman spoke, more came out with their stories. It was crystal clear: we had failed them by refusing to believe them individually.

The African-American burden

As one of the women, Jewel Allison says in the piece, “I had a few moments where I tried to come forward. But I was just too scared, and I also had the extra burden of not really wanting to take an African-American man down.”

For the longest time, Bill Cosby has been the cultural icon of an upwardly mobile black America. The Cosby Show was a promise of stability, family and the American dream – if only black people would get with the programme. Those aren’t my words; Cosby has famously chided poor black people in a speech now called the ‘Pound cake speech’.

#TheEmptyChair

Here we are then, with 35 women together in one story, and another 11 who didn’t want to be featured.

And who knows how many more?

There is no denying this: Bill Cosby drugged and raped these women. He stripped them of their consent, and then he stripped them of the ability to say something.

As the magazine noted a few days after the story’s release, the piece has sparked off a conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #TheEmptyChair, reference to that last empty chair at the bottom of the cover photo – a stand-in for the 11 women who chose not to be featured in the piece, but also for the many women who have been silenced over the years.

Rape and what it can mean

Technically, the piece revealed nothing now. All these women had made these accusations in the past, either as Jane Does or in their own names, either as part of a lawsuit only or in public/in the media.

That’s not what’s striking. It’s when you put all these narratives side by side, look at the chronology of assault, and the commonalities in all the stories – it’s chilling and heartbreaking.

It takes 35 women sitting together for us to believe each of their individual narratives.

A running thread through all of these narratives is that most of the time, these women either didn’t realise that what was being done to them constituted rape, or they were told that they would never be able to convince the police of the same.

That’s what the last few years has changed for these women – and hopefully for many others going forward. For those who are suspicious of the many, many women seemingly coming out of the woodwork to charge Cosby with assault, understand that social media and safe spaces for women on the Internet has made it possible for these voices to ring across the internet as loudly as Cosby’s more powerful voice usually does.

If Bill Cosby could squash the National Inquirer piece on him assaulting women by promising a scoop, it doesn’t matter anymore. There are many other media organisations willing to tell their story.

This is also possible because of how we look at assault today. As the women rightly point out, in the 60s and 70s, rape was strangers in the bush, not mentors, celebrities and certainly not intimate partners.

Thank god for feminism. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. We are here today, where people (men, woman and transpeople) can talk about assault and at least some of us – and increasingly more and more of us – will listen, will take them seriously. It’s scary to think that this was simply not a possibility fifty years ago, that everyone from your family to acquaintances to the police would tell you to just get over it, or that you had it wrong.

The cover story that NY Mag did this week speaks to the lasting effect of the years of sexual violence and decades of mental torture. It reminds us: a woman doesn’t have to be gangraped and left to die for her life and agency to be taken away forever.

Forget America, look at ourselves: we will weep for the murdered, the mauled and left to die. But what about the many, many women facing intimate partner violence?

If I sound hyperbolic, it’s because I am desperate in my need to never have this happen again. We cannot let a person do this to many women over so many decades, for it to take this long for the story to be told. Nevermind justice; the statute of limitations has passed for a lot of these women, and they will never get the ‘legal’ retribution that a lot of people seem to think suffice as justice.

Boycott Cosby, but that’s the least of it. Let’s instead believe them. Let’s not let this happen again.

The Usefulness of OpenStreetMap in Disaster Relief

by mr november

Immediately after the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal on Saturday, 25th April 2015, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team [HOT] activated a huge user-contributed effort towards mapping various areas of the affected region. Along with organizations like Kathmandu Living Labs and Mapbox, HOT has enabled 3,461 users all over the world to contribute to OpenStreetMap [OSM] of Nepal till now. Around 57,000 edits have been made in the past four days by users, 2061 of whom are new users, registering just for this task [1]. These maps help relief and rescue organizations on the ground to reach affected areas and citizens.

Facilitating a link between the OpenStreetMap Community and the traditional crisis / disaster response teams, has been the main role of HOT. They have helped setup voluntary user contributions and mapping tasks during disasters like the Haiti earthquake, Ivory Coast Election Crisis, Ebola Epidemic in West Africa and Somalian Drought & Famine Crisis. Kathmandu Living Labs is a group of young technology enthusiasts who have remarkably brought together open source, open data and civic technologies to solve difficult issues. Along with Mapbox, an agency that specializes in maps, spatial data and Geographical Information Systems, they are actively working on HOT OSM tasks.

Since Sunday, 26th April 2015, users have been able to map in great detail about 10,000 sq. km of the affected area, “including coverage of road networks, hiking trails, built-up areas, building footprints, river crossings and temporary relief camps.” [2]

screenshot-api tiles mapbox com 2015-04-30 15-55-57

Earthquake Intensity Map by Mapbox. Red indicates stronger shocks.

How are maps useful for relief and rescue work?

Maps are valuable tools for humanitarian work. They allow for a strategic understanding of different parts of affected regions, such as road networks, residential areas, types of land use (industrial, agricultural) and so on. This helps relief and rescue agencies to identify all locations, how to reach them and what kind of a topographic landscape to plan for. So in a natural disaster like an earthquake, one of the many ways a detailed map can help is to identify locations where camp sites (Internally Displaced Persons – IDP Camps) can be setup. Mapping a network of roads, paths and tracks is another very useful task, since the data it generates is highly valuable for distributing aid and relief services.

Organizations like Red Cross and MSF (Doctors Without Borders) work closely with HOT for maps.

What is OpenStreetMap and how is it different from Google Maps?

OpenStreetMap, or OSM, is like a Wikipedia of maps – all data on these maps is user contributed. And unlike Google Maps, this data is freely available for download, distribution, adaption and use. This means that such map data can be used offline and for particular needs of different situations. You can create a map of power lines running through a country to see the reach of the electrical grid, if ever the need arises.

This makes OSM indispensable for humanitarian work. Map data of Nepal contributed by users is available here and here – these are updated every 30 minutes. This can be used to print physical maps, used on smart phone apps like OSM that work offline and even support voice navigation, and on GARMIN GPS devices. [2]

Latest satellite imagery, as recent as 27th April 2015, is available to OSM, making the map up to date and useful.


 

Everyone can contribute to these mapping efforts. Visit the HOT website to get involved. To volunteer for Nepal Relief Maps see this document put together by Datameet.

References:

[1] OpenStreetMap response to the April 25 Earthquake in Nepal

[2] https://www.mapbox.com/blog/mapping-nepal/

[3] 2015 Nepal earthquake

Image by Mapbox

Another version published on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Contemporary Artists and Their Unquestionable Freedoms

by mr november

Dear Russell Peters,

You think that a roast is just being honest about someone, in front of that someone, and that the AIB knockout was great comedy. To an extent, I agree with the first part of this, sure, and I don’t care what you think of Aamir Khan.

But please, by all means, tell us how this means that a comedian (a real artist according to you) can ‘speak the truth’ about a person’s dark skin by joking about an entire race, about how they were – and are – treated like shit on the basis of their skin colour, about how an epidemic is taking their lives and goes unnoticeable until white people get affected by it. Does it also mean that a comedian can make fun of the sexuality of so many people who are shamed and humiliated by society, because one person on their stage happens to be okay with it? I could go on and on with references.

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