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.
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.
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.