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The Free Basics Debate

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India banned Free Basics in India on the 8th of February. Free Basics is a service which facebook setup in partnership with Reliance Communications to provide Free Mobile “Internet” in India, to those who cannot afford a basic data plan. There was a heated debate throughout the Internet for several months on how Free Basics violates the principle of Net Neutrality. So many of my friends, family, and mentors, stood against Freebasics. Several massive online campaigns organized by the Indian Internet Community led TRAI to submit itself to Mob Justice. I was one among the very few who were in support of Free Basics.

Right from the initial days of the anti-free basics campaign, which sprouted out off Reddit India, I’ve asked several questions to those who stand religiously against it, but I had never received a valid answer which was not of the Mangatha Da type, and ofcourse, the downvotes. Well, that’s Reddit India, can’t expect them to stop their circle jerk.

The core reason for the anti-free basics campaign as I’ve seen it are

1. Poor Internet for Poor Countries? FUCK YOU Facebook

The demographic of reddit is mostly 18-35 year old, urban born (or those who mostly live in urban areas), those who make a decent living (aka afford a mobile dataplan or broadband at home), mostly middle and upper-middle class. They think, Freebasics makes, them, and majority of India, look like a charity case. Ouch. Egos hurt. What they don’t seem to get is, Freebasics is not for them. They can keep paying 350Rs a month for a dataplan and 1200rs a month for broadband at home. There are plenty of genuine people who want some access to the Internet, but can’t afford a dataplan every month. They would rather spend that money on something vital, such as their child’s education or a tuition or food. I’m not even talking about those who live below poverty line here, these are people at the lower end of the middle class spectrum. Those who don’t give a shit about being called a charity case. But reddit india has nothing to lose, so they decided that Free Basics is bad for all Indians and went ahead with the campaign.

2. Facebook would be the sole gatekeeper to the Internet, which would make an uneven competition between friends of facebook and the rest.

This is actually very funny. So, entrepreneurs think, freebasics would drive traffic to products that have signed up for it and leave the rest in limbo. For ex: If Amazon India signs up for freebasics, it would get the traffic from freebasic subscribers, and capture the marketshare while flipkart fails to.

Let’s take a step back here, and remember what Freebasics is about. It is a service for people who cannot afford a dataplan. People who are already on the Internet would be pretty disappointed of freebasics, because of the limited bandwidth and web services. Now, how many startups have potential freebasics subscribers as their core market segment? None. Because, people who can’t afford a dataplan would bother less to buy something off flipkart. You get my point?

So, when entrepreneurs talk about losing market share, I don’t know, What the fuck. Plus not to mention these startup dudes who register their company in Singapore, or elsewhere to get away with lesser tax, simpler paper work, nice bankruptcy laws, and then vouch for following the global net neutrality principle strictly. I will make that hypocrisy hurt.

Besides that, anyone can submit their app/service to be included in freebasics, for Free. All they have to do is follow the guide provided by Facebook and submit it for review. The tech behind is intrusive, but it’s a free service, so i’m not complaining.

3. Freebasics might tempt Telcos to go with Differential Charging.

This is a valid reason. Telcos in India are apeshit crazy. Not sure what they do with all the IIM grads they hire. I mean, if they have a bit of commonsense, it is easy to filter out most of the dickish schemes they introduce. Let’s get back on topic. I agree that this is a valid threat. Telcos might apply differential pricing to everyone. i.e even with your monthly dataplan, you have to pay separate if you want to use Skype or whatsapp calls. But this can’t be done overnight. Why stop Freebasics for something that may or may not happen? and even if it happens, why not channel all the current resources the anti-freebasics campaign has now to destroy the telco.

The takeaway is, It is okay to have pre-set rules, but if breaking them brings advantages to millions at the best, and harmless at the worst, it is time to rewrite the rules. Afterall that’s how constitutional amendments work in a democracy.