Too frequent notifications of late saying your this friend or that friend supported Free Basics, just to make us all fall into the trap of following the bandwagon as we generally do and Facebook as a business has understood that well. After all that is what consumerism does to us. Not seconds late we see the word Free and lo the deal is sold! But oh the Facebook forgot that while we are consumerist enough, we are also living in a knowledge based economies where knowledge is consumed in likewise fashion.
Unfortunately, harder the facebook sold its Free Basic program, wider awake the masses became about the pros and cons of this seemingly free internet opportunity designed for providing internet facilities to the poor Indians. Aaaawww! So caring of Indians! Well to start with do you remember a thing called Internet.org? Yes! Free Basics is a smarter marketing gimmick applied to revamp the movement called Internet.Org.
What is FREE in Free Basics: The only thing free in this deal is our access to the social media site called Facebook. Its appeal to the government of India is to let all mobile carriers have tie-up with facebook so that each one of the individual can easily access internet. Facebook assumes that Internet = Facebook. This implies that people will not be able to search content on Google or Youtube or jobs on naukri.com. All the users will have free access to the facebook site and tiny sites which are tagged along. One will have to pay for use of any other site because mobile operators/carriers will have tied up with Facebook and any other site for that matter will be charged. And if not those sites will have to pay in order to make them available for the end users.
The Analogy:So at a larger perspective, what content we see or learn will be gated by Facebook. Though facebook might be an amazing social media site but it cannot grab the spectrum belonging to people of India which is sold to mobile carriers by the government (on our behalf). To me it is no way Digital Equality, it is Digital Bondage! Imagine your cable guy saying Free channels for everyone but when you turn it on, there are selected channels that are shove down your throat. And you have shell out extra bucks to see a channel of your choice. It is like going to a library and not being able to read a book of your own choice.
The Concerns:Some of us might be wondering that what is wrong in letting this happen. By law this turns out to be the case of market dominance which eventually leads to abuse of dominance. The companies are trying to get a pact signed with mobile operators on first come first basis so as to prevent the larger consumer base accessing the competition. Howsoever, in this case companies like Google, Yahoo with big cash wallets will stand no behind and will be ready to pay more and have consumer base shifted to them. What will happen to small and medium businesses? What will happen to the vision of startup India? Had such policies been in place, there would have been nothing called Facebook. (to understand this better, I suggest you to read on zero rating, differential pricing and case where Flipkart walked out of Airtel Zero)
The Unintended Good:Interestingly this whole mess around Free Basics has done few good things to us. It has sown a seed in the minds of govt. of India and institutions like TRAI to have proper regulations in place regarding Net Neutrality, Zero Rating and whether differential pricing is a justified move or not. Secondly, it has made us all think that whether Internet is a market or a social phenomenon. Hence only people who pay should have access to the internet or there is a need for free connectivity to the left ones in order to have a connected India (in real terms and to achieve the vision of Digital India)? This will set up a platform for us to think and re-think bigger issues and smaller details related to Digital India and its impending consequences.
What can WE DO:We need to STOP clicking YES on each and every thing that pops up in support of Connected India, Free Internet etc. We need to read and act because our single act may be carving out destiny of our nation or the future course of action. We need to understand that as and when we develop as a nation, there will be more pressing issues that might have seemed irrelevant years ago but will need attention and our say will matter in such times. Hence understand both sides of the coin. Last but not the least everything that seems FREE is NOT FREE!
(The writer is an IIM Shillong Alumnus)