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BW Businessworld

'Nothing Free About Our Basic Freedoms'

Mishi Choudhary, Executive Director of and Legal Director of SFLC, tells BW | Businessworld's Mala Bhargava about the facts of ‘Free’ Basics'

Photo Credit : Mishi Choudhary (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia)


The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has directed Reliance Communications (R-Com) to delay the launch of Facebook's Free Basics till April. In October, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had said that Free Basics had already brought Internet access to over one million people in India, who otherwise did not have internet access, and would be instrumental in connecting the next one-billion Indians online. Mishi Choudhary, Executive Director of and Legal Director of SFLC, tells BW | Businessworld's Mala Bhargava about the facts of ‘Free’ Basics.

What would be so terrible if Mark Zuckerberg were to get his way and go ahead with Free Basics?
Market distortion, slicing of internet into channels picked up and chosen by Internet Service providers in collusion with rich content platforms such as Facebook. The barriers of entry will rise for new competition. Doom for Digital India and Make in India initiative.

Would personal data be in any more danger than it is post-Free Basics?

To begin with, naturally, "Facebook takes user privacy and security extremely seriously." Indeed, it loves the privacy of the Indian poor so much that it wants to take it home to California. Free Basics, by design, tracks all the web interactions of all users; Facebook instead says that it "receives and stores data on navigation information," hoping that won't sound like spying on everybody, which it is. They want us to know that they will store all the raw data from this spying not "beyond 90 days," which is a geological time period in the data-mining business. Because those users are overwhelmingly likely to be signed on to Facebook, WhatsApp or another FB-controlled service, all of that tracking data will be de-anonymized.

With the last 90 days of every user's total web traffic, de-anonymized, joined to the models built for those users by the analysis of all former periods, Facebook will know everything about those users' lives online. But because Facebook takes (destroying) your privacy so seriously, we are reassured, "we don't share any personally identifiable information with our content partners." In other words, Facebook keeps all the value of de-anonymizing the packets of millions of the Indian poor to themselves.

What would Reliance and other partners get out of Facebook's Free Basics?
Ostensibly they say they will get more users to buy full data packs once they have tasted some internet. They also say no money has exchanged hands. According to Facebook, Reliance Communications is simply choosing to give away the privacy and security of the Free Basics users' packets to Facebook, without getting paid for it, and is really providing all the subsidized Internet service to the poor at its own expense. If this were true, it means that Reliance Communications and its larger competitors have made so much profit from data services in India that they could afford to provide basic subsidized services themselves. But why, if true, does Reliance Communications need Facebook or India needs Facebook to provide spied-on services to the poor at all? Why does Facebook need, as it says, to collect all the navigation data "because
it needs to determine what traffic can be delivered free of data charges" if it isn't paying for the traffic?

No doubt what Facebook really means is a half-truth: the opaque contractual provisions between Facebook and its partners, like those with other ISPs around the world, contain so many different interrelated business activities that the cross-payments between them for Free Basics traffic are perhaps hidden away in some other part of their relationship.

Why is Mark Zuckerberg so impatient to get Indian customers via Free Basics? Why not allow organic growth or spur it through awareness campaigns in the areas being targeted?
Data is the oil of 21st century. Advertisements and personal data of millions of Indians as China is closed to him and other markets are exhausted. It's the developing world where the future gold of advertising is. Also, Facebook makes a lot of money on mobile and Indian users have leapfrogged into mobile internet unlike their American counterparts.

What should the government and TRAI really do about the Free Basics plan now?
TRAI should enforce common carriage rules for TSPs and ISPs and use this definition by Vishal Misra to test every such effort: Internet is a platform where ISPs provide no competitive advantage to specific apps/services, either through pricing or QoS. Phone companies or application providers cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers and use network operations to extract value.