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Free Basics internet can succeed only if free as in beer

After much controversy and an eventual regulatory ban, Facebook has now shuttered its controversial Free Basics service in India, which begs the question whether its "free" internet model will ever work.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

It seems to have the most altruistic of intention, but Facebook's Free Basics troubled journey in India suggests the only way the model will succeed is if it comes without any conditions.

After months of heated debate and much controversy, the social media giant on Thursday finally pulled the plug on the campaign, which offered free internet access to some basic services such as education, news, and health. "Free Basics is no longer available to people in India," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement Thursday.

The move came after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) banned service providers in the country from offering or charging discriminatory tariffs for data services, based on the content provided. It effectively put an end to Free Basics, which was offered by local telco Reliance Communications, as well as other similar initiatives such as Airtel Zero.

Detractors of the Facebook campaign argued that it created a two-tier internet that went against the principles of net neutrality, offering only those who can pay full, unfettered access. They added that it disadvantaged India's smaller companies and startups. Others said the platform was not an open system, despite its claims to be one, since Facebook defined the technical guidelines for Free Basics and had the right to change these specifications.

Only websites, apps, and services that adhere to the guidelines can be part of the Free Basics programme and, hence, made available to its users.

On its part, Facebook said the technical specs were necessary to ensure websites and services accessible via Free Basics were "simple and data-efficient" and could operate in environments with limited bandwidth. This, it said, would help build a free internet infrastructure in an economically sustainable way.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last May explained in a video posted on internet.org that it was "not sustainable to offer the whole internet for free", noting that it cost tens of billions of dollars a year to operate the internet. "No operator could afford this if everything were free," Zuckerberg said. "But it is sustainable to build free basic services that are simpler, use less data, and work on all low-end phones."

In a byliner published December 2015 in The Times of India, the Facebook CEO likened Free Basics to other free basic services such as those offered by public libraries, hospitals, and schools. He said everyone deserved access to tools and information that helped them achieve these public services, including access to free basic internet services.

In an April 2015 post, Zuckerberg also penned: "To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can't afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all."

He added that Free Basics would never block or throttle any other services.

The problem with that proposition, though, is the assumption that the people accessing such services are happy to do so, knowing they will be experiencing a different internet.

Will people want a different internet, even if free?

In an article published December 2015, law graduate Amba Kak wrote that research she had conducted at the Oxford Internet Institute revealed the majority of low-income users expressed preference for unrestricted all-access internet plans, even if limited plans were available at a lower cost.

A former Google Policy Fellow who is currently studying at Oxford University, Kak said: "What I learnt from my interviews was that the next generation of internet users are mostly young, and curious about the ability of the internet to materially benefit their lives. Limited access curtailed this ability."

Perhaps Zuckerberg's intentions for Free Basics are truly altruistic, with no ulterior commercial motive associated with the possibility of tapping markets with billions of users who can potentially be added to Facebook's user base. Perhaps the campaign really does aim solely to "bring internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn't have them".

But, it is unlikely to succeed by creating another internet ecosystem that offers limited access--even if it does so with valid reasons--and to users who, while underprivileged, likely are already familiar with what the 'original' internet ecosystem offers in its entirety.

Facebook says Free Basics will never throttle or block any services, but by allowing only websites and apps that adhere to its technical specs, it is in effect doing exactly that.

The internet's role as a marketplace also means it cannot be compared to public libraries or schools or hospitals, since it can--unintentionally or otherwise--spawn another group of underprivileged in the form of smaller businesses and startups, that may not have unfettered access to Free Basics users.

The internet has levelled the playing field for many small businesses, including thousands in India where the e-commerce sector, in particular, has boomed. This level playing field will no longer be available to them in a Free Basics environment.

Instead of forcing websites and apps to abide by a set of rules to be part of a tiered internet infrastructure, a better solution may lie in offering users complete access but for limited times during the day, or for a certain number of hours per day, per week, or per month.

Websites also can be automatically streamlined and stripped of features that are bandwidth-intensive, so operators can continue to support connectivity at an "economically sustainable way". Furthermore, this will strongly encourage businesses to make their own tweaks according to a set of recommended technical specs, if they want their sites and all online services to be accessed in their complete form.

As it stands, the environment that Free Basics proposes offers only a very, very small fragment of what the internet--in its entirety--has to offer. In this case, it is not always better to provide some access than none at all. It is simply not the way the internet is supposed to function.

Asked about the Facebook initiative, Tim Berners-Lee told The Guardian people should reject a "branded internet" that wasn't the internet. The inventor of the internet said: "No, it isn't free, no it isn't in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something...[only] giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards."

I'd agree. To operate as it was originally intended, access to the world wide web should be free as in free beer, without any restrictions or conditions--even if the ultimate reason for these limitations is kind.

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