Tuesday, December 29, 2015

When Free Access Is Not Free Access

Facebook - gatekeeper to the internet

It is illegal in the United States for an internet service provider to discriminate between different types of data. America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to classify broadband internet as a public utility, ensuring that all data is treated equally. Large internet companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter (as well as non-profits such as Wikipedia) have convinced mobile operators to offer their services at no cost—so-called “zero-rating.” Net neutrality means that the Internet works the same for different users of the net, regardless of who you are.

All Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to do is make the world a better place for his new daughter, or so he would like us all to believe. Facebook is to provide a free but limited internet to the developing world. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, however, has asked Reliance Communications, Facebook’s sole operator partner in India, to halt the Internet.org project. So-called “zero-rating” services have been criticized for violating net neutrality—principles that prohibit internet service providers from favoring, slowing, or restricting access to particular sites—and for threatening free speech and innovation. Net neutrality activists have long argued that Internet.org provides a “walled garden” experience because the sites that users can access for free are determined by Facebook and its telecom partners, essentially making them gatekeepers to the internet for poor people. Millions of people already have a skewed perception of the web, believing Facebook to be the internet.

Facebook now boasts 1 billion people who visit the social network everyday and 1.5 billion who do so every month. Facebook see India as a huge untapped market and are aggressively going after new users there, even if it means having to provide them free access. It’s estimated that about 1 billion people in the country lack internet access, and most of them are expected to come online for the first time via cheap mobile phones. In a November call with investors, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg singled out India as the country “that benefits the most from connectivity.” As of last month, Internet.org has connected more than 1 million people in India. Net neutrality activists take issue with this fact, arguing that Facebook and its partners are essentially acting as gatekeepers to the internet for poor people. The service in India is also known to be slow, spotty, and unreliable. Zuckerberg’s project to confuse hundreds of millions of emerging market users into thinking that Facebook and the Internet are one and the same.

When the poor, who can’t afford a net connection come to the Facebook Zero service confusingly called Internet.org, they’re made to believe they’re on the internet while in reality they’re only on Facebook and a few hand-picked sites. And the sites too are picked in secret under some unknown process. For instance, Facebook chose to offer the distant-second search engine Bing instead of industry-leading Google. Why? Is it rivalry with Google? Or because of Microsoft’s stake in Facebook? And then Facebook’s Zero product features a tiny job site like Babajob instead of the industry-leading Naukri. Why? No one knows.

Indian journalist Nikhil Pahwa pointed out research after research that shows zero services around the world universally tend to do badly for the people who use them. It all seems to amount to economic racism—exploiting the poor in under-developed parts of the world to become your customers under the guise of some apparent charitable purpose. While offering them a shoddy, stunted version of the real thing. As Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of payments app PayTM, puts it: “It’s poor internet for poor people”. Internet.org is a proprietary and secret Facebook initiative to ensure its competitors, and those of its “partners”, will face obstacles in reaching hundreds of millions of poorer users bought using the lure of “free”. Zuckerberg wants, is to take away from telecom operators the power to discriminate against websites, only so that Facebook can wield that power instead. The Internet should be neutral, he insists, so long as Facebook is allowed to play kingmaker in between. Zuckerberg’s ambitions become clear when, in his article, he says Internet.org is open to “all mobile operators” and “as many internet providers” as possible. Who does he not mention? Internet sites and mobile apps. Because the power to decide which of them get on Internet.org will rest with Facebook. Internet.org is not open, and despite its name, is not the Internet.

You know who doesn’t have a say in Facebook’s Internet.org? You. Neither Internet.org, Airtel Zero nor any other major zero rating platform gives the choice to the consumer. Instead, the decisions are made by big telcos working in partnership with large Internet companies. Smaller firms are forced to commercially lobby and sign up in order to prevent their competitors from being able to deal in and crush them.

The Odisha Chief Minister says that “While the underprivileged deserve much more than what is available, nobody should decide what exactly are their requirements. If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their rights to choose what they think is best for them.”

We may find it advantageous that we do not have to pay (extra) for a particular type of traffic. Nevertheless, zero-rating lead to selected traffic from the Internet service provider itself or affiliated providers being favoured above other traffic. And this is exactly the kind of situation net neutrality aims to avoid – allowing the Internet service provider to decide how we use the Internet. Instead, the Internet should remain an open, neutral platform for all types of communication. Facebook is no doubt hoping that India’s and other countries interpretation of net neutrality doesn’t catch on, because zero-rated content is crucial to the social network’s growth strategy. Facebook want to be the ultimate portal to the internet – the average person’s starting point – and their best chance of playing this role for new customers is in emerging markets, where most people’s first internet experience is through the handset. Through deals with carriers in such markets, Facebook can to all intents and purposes be the internet, or at least the service new users most associate with being online. This was a major reason for Facebook’s $19 billion WhatsApp takeover – WhatsApp plays a similar role for many new internet users, and Facebook needed to both neutralize the threat and ride on WhatsApp’s own growing popularity.

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