Dear Mark Zuckerberg,
We thank you for your recent visit and your continued interest in India. As a group of volunteers part of the Save the Internet Campaign, we have been engaging on the issue of Network Neutrality for much of the past year. It is a matter of distress that Facebook, through its internet.org platform and in its lobbying on regulatory consultations, has sought to undermine Net Neutrality in India and also increasingly questioned the motives of more than a million Indians who have participated in consultations organised by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) as well as the Department of Telecom.
Yesterday, in your townhall address at IIT Delhi, you mentioned that “Those who don’t have access to the Internet cannot sign online petitions,” trying to make a case that those who oppose of your Net Neutrality violating Internet.org/Free Basics service are campaigning against those who do not have Internet access. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of us have benefited from the Internet because of the openness, plurality and diversity it has to offer. We want more people to get access to the internet—the entire internet—and not primarily the filter for the web that you have set up with Internet.org/Free Basics. We’d like to remind you that Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founding fathers of the Internet who strives for expanding its use by the entire web recently called Zero Rating “Economic Discrimination”, saying that “Economic discrimination is just as harmful as technical discrimination, so ISPs will still be able to pick winners and losers online.”
Even today, Internet.org has restrictions that those services which compete with telecom operator services will not be allowed on it. WhatsApp would have never emerged on this platform. You also reserve the right to reject services from Internet.org. We fail to understand why, if it is an open platform, someone even needs to apply, and conform to your pre-defined technical limitations, and has to go through unspecified checks determined by your organization.
Internet.org is not an open platform, and all we are asking for, is for you to ensure that any such effort to bring access to the Internet ensure that users get access to the entire Internet, and not through a pre-determined menu or filter, which primarily benefits those who are selected for the platform. While we understand that there is currently no paid arrangement between Facebook, its partners and telecom operators, and you’ve suggested that this is a philanthropic endeavour, there is no undertaking from you that there won’t be any future arrangements for Facebook’s benefit. Internet businesses like Facebook and Google have been built around the idea of offering services for free in the beginning, and then monetization through means such as advertising. This is keeping in mind the choice of the “.com” URL for FreeBasics.com, as opposed to a “.org” for Internet.org.
You’ve also suggested that universal access is more important than Net Neutrality, and that there is a possibility of taking Net Neutrality “too far”. That is plausible if, and only if there aren’t any options available which provide universal access without violating Net Neutrality. Some examples, in case you haven’t heard of them:
- The Mozilla Foundation runs a program with Grameenphone, where users get free data in exchange for watching an advertisement.
- The Mozilla Foundation also runs a program with Orange in Africa, where those who purchase a $37 handset get 500 MB of free data.
- There are data cashback schemes such as Gigato offer data for free, for surfing some sites. Airtel has launched night plans, which give data as a cashback upon usage of the Internet between midnight and 6am, helping bring cost of access down.
Therefore, one does not have to choose between Universal Access and Net Neutrality.
Qualitative research has found that less experienced, low income groups prefer access to an open and unrestricted Internet, and “some access is better than none”, but the trade-off they are willing to make is how much they use the internet, not necessarily how much of the internet they get to use. Therefore, the research indicates that users also don’t want that false choice between Net Neutrality and Access.
It’s also a matter of concern that data for all the websites on Internet.org will be with Facebook, and restrictions are placed on them publicly disclosing usage of their sites and services by users on Internet.org. Apart from the fact that no open platform places such restrictions, this data and the learnings gained from it gives a competitive advantage to Facebook, because of the competitive advantage given to Internet.org by its telecom operator partners.
Lastly, we’d like to point out that Free Basics does nothing to help address India’s key problem—not one of getting more users online, given that the IAMAI has reported that we’ve added as many as 52 million Internet users in the last six months alone—but of improving access infrastructure so that users get seamless high speed connectivity. We need to focus on growing the pie, not splitting the pie. Our concern with Internet.org/Free Basics is that it will create a new digital divide: those who access Facebook and its partner services, and those who access the open Internet.
There are ways of providing Internet access in a manner that is open, so that everyone gets access to the whole of the Internet, without discrimination between web services, and without violating Net Neutrality. Don’t forget that Facebook benefited from this openness and neutrality. Facebook, along with its intentions to connection billions to the Internet, should support and advocate for Net Neutrality and permissionless innovation in India, the way it has done in the US.
The Savetheinternet.in team