India is Facebook’s second largest market after the US, and the social media giant has rolled out Free Basics, a new, “free” service which they claim has the ability to connect millions of people who have never connected to the Internet. In doing so, it is showcasing a new, aggressive corporate strategy. Both regulators and critics have said that the way in which Facebook serves its traffic to the app violates net neutrality, the principle that opposes internet providers prioritising certain web traffic over others.
So-called “zero rating platforms” like Free Basics, lock the “freedom of user in accessing content over Internet and limits their access to application or content that are offered for free on discretion of the company owning it” explains the Indian Express. The service was suspended by regulators in December, despite a PR frenzy from Facebook. Regulators, who have already received a record amount feedback, have extended the call for comments until 14 January 2016. The ongoing battle between the Menlo Park, California-based, and the Indian government has yet to come to a head, but regulators are expected to rule by the end of January.
In a globally-focused strategy, Facebook is seeking to gain a new, lucrative market demographic: those all around the world who have not yet connected to the Internet. With Free Basics —which is a rebranding of Internet.org—Facebook is offering smartphone users “free” access to Facebook and Facebook Messenger, along with a selection of news, health, and entertainment sites. Telecoms providers carry the data for the app without charging the user extra for accessing the basic content portals. Browsing the same sites via the phone’s browser would incur data charges. With the Android application, Facebook is seeking to offer a content portal that receives preferential traffic, which undermines the all-traffic-is-equal-traffic principle of net neutrality.
Facebook aggressively lobbied for positive reviews of the service and used its social media platform to have users directly send feedback in support of its new Free Basics mobile app. Regulators received a record number of public comments relating to Free Basics, including half a million comments from @facebook.com email addresses. This willingness to influence regulators by manipulating public discourse creates an interesting debate on the power of the “techno class”.
This increase in public pressure from Facebook did not deter the Indian government, which has become a vocal proponent of net neutrality. Despite aggressive lobbying from Facebook, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruled that Free Basics violates the principle of a free and egalitarian Internet, shutting down the service in late December 2015.
A timeline of notable events in 2015 sets the stage for the current situation, although the fate of the service has yet to be determined:
In February, 2015, Free Basics launched in six states in India on the carrier Reliance Mobile (a carrier that still lacks substantial national coverage), giving users access to 31 sites through the Free Basics app. Services include sites like Wikipedia and Accuweather as well as news, entertainment and information sites.
In April, the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, launched a public diplomacy campaign that included a Facebook post defending and promoting Free Basics in India. He stated at the time: “Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity.”
In late November, the platform went live across the country and, to mark the nationwide roll out, Facebook launched a public relations campaign—including billboards and a dedicated “Myths and Facts” page—aimed at promoting the ostensible virtues of the service. (The program, which was suspended in late December, is still promoted on Reliance’s official site).
In late December, the service was suspended by the TRAI. In a statement to the Times of India, a senior government official was quoted as saying “The question has arisen whether a telecom operator should be allowed to have differential pricing for different kinds of content, unless that question is answered, it will not be appropriate for us to continue to make that happen.”
The TRAI opened a process for public comments, and Facebook created a form inside of the Facebook platform to send a note supporting Free Basics. The initiative gained a record 2.4M respondents, which included over half a million responses from @facebook.com. One-fifth, or 484,000, of the responses were from standardized forms like Facebook’s the Save the Internet petition. The TRAI has not been amused with Facebook’s strategy reports India Today, and “has been critical of a vast majority of the replies talking about a template provided by Facebook without commenting on the broader issues of the debate.”
Facebook’s strategy garnered rebuke from India’s regulators and Internet activists. In an open letter on net neutrality (co-signed by EDRi) to Mark Zuckerberg , digital advocacy organization Access Now highlights an additional consequence of Free Basics to the status quo of the telecommunications industry and their role as passive content providers: “Facebook’s actions embolden telecommunications carriers in their broader efforts to stop Net Neutrality protections from being passed across the world—particularly in emerging nations and elsewhere in the Global South—by creating the false impression that there is a grassroots movement opposed to Net Neutrality.“
Facebook is seeking to increase its global reach beyond its roots as a social media platform. The social media company is not only looking to procure new users, but also increase its product and service offerings (Free Basics, messaging via Whatsapp, photos through Instagram, and immersive games on the Oculus Rift, to name just a few). If the India case study is any indication, we may have just witnessed one of the opening volleys of Facebook’s bullish public and governmental diplomacy strategy. Facebook has shown that it is willing to use its platform to influence, subvert and circumvent democratic safeguards like TRAI’s feedback mechanism. The company is flexing its muscles to keep Free Basics in India and other emerging markets, despite objections from regulators and criticism from digital advocates regarding violations of net neutrality. Facebook has heavily invested in Free Basics, but the fate of the service in India could set a precedent for how governments respond to the service, how willing telecoms are to carry the service, and how Facebook uses both its hard and soft power to provide the service. Digital activists should monitor the Free Basics saga diligently. Free Basics, despite its ability to connect new users to parts of the Internet, is still simply a “window to the Internet”, and therefore remains a threat to the open Internet.
(Contributed by Matthew Stender, Independent creative consultant and Project Strategist for Onlinecensorship.org)
Access Now: Open letter to Mark Zuckerberg on Net Neutrality advocacy in India (06.01.2015)
Indian Express: Net Neutrality vs Free Basics: Facebook says it supports differential data pricing (12.01.2016)
Times of India: Put Facebook’s Free Basics service on hold: TRAI (23.12.2015)