What Was India’s Problem With (the Not so) Free Basics
By allowing Free Basics, we would have given foreign firms the right to set rules by which we access the Internet.
Facebook’s controversial Free Basics project in India screeched to a halt this week after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) upheld the principle of net neutrality. The ruling has, unsurprisingly, caused a social media uproar. But it has been overshadowed by Facebook board member and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s now-notorious tweet equating India’s opposition to Free Basics to its “economically catastrophic” policies of “anti-colonialism”. Andreessen discovered, unsurprisingly, that invoking colonialism to justify Free Basics, as he did, is a foolproof way to offend 1.3 billion people.
The point here is not to continue the public flogging of one individual for his unfortunate gaffe (for which he has already apologised, including by retweeting my speech at the Oxford Union on the moral debt owed to India for colonial oppression).
Shaming Mr. Andreessen after his apology, however grudging it may have been, is beyond unproductive: it’s counterproductive. It draws attention away from the central problems with Free Basics that led to the TRAI ruling and his tweet in the first place.
But Andreessen’s analogy unwittingly offers an enlightening lens through which to examine the Free Basics controversy. India’s colonial history can tell us much about the controversy surrounding Free Basics.
Like the colonists, Facebook sought to sell its venture as benign, bringing the benefits of the internet to the poor masses who could not afford it. (The British, after all, justified their pillaging of India as part of a “civilising mission”.) It’s true that a lot of Indians who own phones can’t afford a thousand rupees a month (or more) for a data package; the Facebook scheme would have offered access to a limited number of sites for free through select telecom providers.
Those who wanted unrestricted access to the entire internet would still have to pay, but the poor would make do with a few useful sites offered by Facebook for free. Those sites would constitute a “walled garden” (rather like Jallianwallah Bagh, one might say), while those not benefiting from Facebook’s largesse could roam the world outside.
It’s strikingly reminiscent of the colonial-era Government of India Act of 1935. The 1935 Act brought provincial governments under the rule of elected Indian ministers for the first time. Provincial governments were elected, however, through a limited franchise, in which only Indians with education or holding property were permitted the vote. So, 35 million people out of a population of 300 million enjoyed the franchise, while this was touted as “democracy” by the British. The vast majority of Indians remained excluded from political participation in the colonial government. The Empire purported that the 1935 Act offered a political voice to Indians, when, in reality, it simply ensured that their political rights were restricted.
Indians endured this partial and fractured political presence on the national political stage until independence, when our Constitution promptly granted full and universal franchise to all adults, despite an 83 percent illiteracy rate.
Free Basics offers the Internet equivalent of a limited franchise – the illusion of access to the Internet, like the colonial illusion of democracy, but limited to a few sites, as voting was limited to a few people. It would allow people to enter the playground of cyberspace, but it builds a fence around the playground. Some are able to climb over the fence by paying for unrestricted internet access after being introduced to the internet by Free Basics. But the existence of the fence itself is grounds for serious objection, as the existence of foreign rule was to Indian nationalists in the colonial era.
An additional problem with this kind of digital colonialism is that it ignores the progress we’re making on our own. India has been closing the “internet gap” at a rapid rate well before Mark Zuckerberg dreamt of Free Basics. Over 70 percent of Indians have mobile phones, and the numbers are rising faster in India than anywhere else in the world. India is the world’s fastest growing smartphone market, and now has more internet users than the United States.
No wonder that, just as Imperial Britain regarded India as the “Jewel in the Crown” of Her Britannic Majesty, so also internet companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Uber and others see India as the prize catch in their attempts to reach the “next billion” Internet consumers of their products and services.
The Who-Benefits Argument
But just as Indians fought for Independence to be able to assert control over their own political destiny, so also we remain profoundly unwilling to cede to foreign companies the right to set the rules by which hundreds of millions of Indians will have access to the Internet. That’s what Facebook’s Free Basics would do, and understandably Indians are profoundly allergic to the idea, which smacks of colonialism.
The question the colonials always ducked in justifying their rule was: “Who benefits?” The Railways, for instance, served British interests (getting Indian raw materials to the ports to ship to Britain, and ferrying colonial officials around) far more than Indian needs. Similarly, Free Basics claims to be about access for the poor, but it would enhance Facebook’s consumer base, give them a huge amount of marketable data on Indian internet users, and establish an overwhelming market dominance. The poor would be only incidental beneficiaries, and like the colonial railways, Free Basics would not necessarily take them where they want to go.
India can easily promote other methods of improving internet access. For instance, the government has collected hundreds of crores from telecoms companies under its Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), and TRAI is set to raise more through its licence fee for Internet service providers. This money could be allocated to subsidise Internet access for the poor, either by directly offsetting the costs of their data plans or by paying service providers to provide certain sites for free to everyone – including, say, all government sites, essential health information and so on. This would achieve the same purpose that Free Basics claims to serve. But instead of benefiting the consumer base of a private (and yes, foreign) company, it would happen as a result of a sovereign decision by the Government of India.
Those were all the angles poor Marc Andreessen overlooked in making his unfortunate allusion to colonialism. For a digital pioneer, sadly, that was SO twentieth century….
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and author.)
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