Internet.org, Zero Rating and Net Neutrality- Why India is overreacting to Internet.org

2 years ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg launched Internet.org, a platform that would provide a selected few services free of any data charges over a selected set of telecommunication networks. Since the time the novel concept was launched, there have been wide criticisms on Zuckerberg’s Internet.org for allegedly breaching net-neutrality by zero-rating services. The criticism has been specifically severe from India with various media outlets including Hindustan Times, calling it an attempt by Facebook to monopolize the internet and to exploit the poor of India. In this article, I take a look at zero-rating, net neutrality and internet.org’s implication on them.

What is Zero Rating?

Zero-Rating is an Internet Service Provider, mostly through a mobile network, granting free access to a particular internet application or service without charging for data usage. Usually, internet services pay the ISP to be zero-rated so that their customers can access their service free of charge. In other words, the service provider will pay the ISP for the data used by their customers.

What is net neutrality?

“Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication” To put it in simple words, net neutrality is the principle that everything on the internet should be treated equally. Governments have various laws that enforce net neutrality in their respective countries.  This prevents ISPs from acting as gatekeepers for the information available on the internet. Throttling a web service, slowing down a web service, charging additionally for a web service or charging less are all acts of discrimination and fall against the concept of net neutrality.

How Zero Rating affects net neutrality?

Zero-rating contradicts net neutrality by discriminating against the charges levied for data consumption. Since a service is provided free of charge and the service provider pays the ISP to make it free, it affects other companies providing the same service, which is fundamentally anti-competitive. Moreover, people have no control over choosing the service that is offered free of charge. Hence, it is the ISP who decides which service is provided free, distorting users’ choice in favor of a particular service.

Internet.org

Internet.org was launched in 2013 by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to provide free internet that would connect the currently disconnected world to the internet. According to Zuckerberg, presently, only a third of the world population connects to the internet. Hence, most of the world’s population lives without access to the monumental repository of information on the internet. To bridge this huge gulf between the world that is thriving in the information era and the world that is stuck to the bygone era, the founder of Facebook collaborated with telecommunication providers to provide internet free of charge to those who can’t afford to pay it, thus narrowing the information gap.

Around 4 billion people in the world do not access the internet. Internet.org attempts to provide health care services, educational services, emergency services, and other productivity services free of charge to all those who can’t afford the luxury of the internet. In the video explaining why connecting everyone to the internet is important, Zuckerberg says improving the lives of people is much more important than worrying about the intellectual purity of technology. His argument is sound about how those unconnected people are deprived of their voices. According to him, internet.org’s target is to help provide a platform for all these people to voice their opinions.

How does it work?

Internet.org functions by collaborating with telecommunication providers and providing data free through them. Service providers can join internet.org by meeting the requirements and can provide their service free of charge to the clients.  No service provider makes a payment to join nor does Facebook pay the network provider to provide free internet. Instead, the service providers modify their websites extensively to be data efficient so that the telecommunication provider does not incur huge losses. Facebook, for instance, does not show photos or videos in their free Facebook service, thus reducing data usage.

According to a Facebook post by Zuckerberg, providing the whole internet completely free would leave the ISPs bankrupt since tens of billions are spent to maintain internet traffic. Hence, only a few basic services are offered free of charge. Currently, Android users can access internet.org by downloading their app from the Play store. Other users can use it by accessing internet.org through a browser. The ultimate goal of Internet.org is to make people know the value of the internet by letting them try a portion of it free. Zuckerberg believes by giving a taste of the internet through internet.org people can be urged to access the full internet.

Criticisms

India has been critical of Internet.org citing that it breaches net neutrality. Hindustan Times took a pot shot at Facebook from a different angle saying that internet.org is a proxy internet. Much of the criticism from India stems from the attempt by Airtel to levy different charges for different types of services provided over the internet which is a blatant violation of net neutrality. Airtel also came up with the Airtel Zero plan whereby they hoped to accept payment from providers to let customers use their services free of charge.

First a local online retail store called Flipkart joined the programme but later withdrew saying it breached net neutrality. The wrath that emerged from the Airtel’s twin attempt to shatter net neutrality deluded most of India’s mind into believing that Internet.org annihilates net neutrality. The fact that people confused Internet.org to be Facebook zero further emphasizes the above conjecture.

Mahesh Murthy, in his article in tech.firstpost.com, argues that “if internet access is offered for free, then one can assume that folks will rush to spend time there – and many of these folks will be the economically less-advantaged ones. Once they log in, though, they’ll end up seeing only a handful of sites that have typically paid a large chunk of money to be there. And those that have paid these placement fees essentially now sit at the ‘front door’ of the internet to these newbie users – and they will raise their prices to make back the hefty fees they’ve paid to get their prime spots. Also, from the user’s point of view, there’s no other part of the internet they can go to from here.” In his argument, he states that sites pay to be a part of Internet.org which itself is fallacious. Mark Zuckerberg’s video clearly asserts the fact that nobody pays Internet.org to be a part of it and it is an open platform where anyone who meets a particular set of technical requirements can become a member. 

His other argument that says it is the less privileged ones that would rush to the service and will only have a few sites at their disposal which is exploitation. Fundamentally, when someone is exploited it should bring a profit to the exploiter. But, here, Facebook does not seem to be making any ostensible profits, at least according to its founder. And isn’t a limited internet better than no internet? Even, if Facebook intends to make a profit out of it, what’s wrong since billions of people would benefit from it somehow?

Nothing is free in the world of technology. If people are ready to ‘sell’ their data to search Google for free, if they are ready to use Google as the default search engine to use Firefox for free, if people are ready to become a product themselves to use Facebook and Twitter free of charge, why can’t you let the poor access the Internet for free even if there is an oblique profit for Facebook behind it? Again in the same article, Murthy argues that the start-ups would be affected since they can’t afford the placement fees. This argument is valid in case of a zero-rated service, where the service is provided free of charge over the internet.

For instance, if an e-commerce website called X pays a telecommunication company money to let the users use X for free, then X can be accessed free of charge through any browsers in full form on that particular network. But Internet.org offers you a stripped version of the internet. You are limited to using a certain set of sites within an app. You open the browser and you are billed. So, with Internet.org a user would not be able to get the full internet experience and the service is not completely zero-rated.

A service over the internet will actually be better than it is on Internet.org. But for someone who can’t afford our internet, Internet.org would be a boon since he at least gets to access a part of the internet in a crude state. A user who wants more can pay to get the actual internet, which is Internet.org’s ultimate goal -making people access the internet by giving them a taste of it for free.

The same article claims “to simply denying the wonder and the width of the internet to the young and knowledge-hungry – this practice is terrible”. Well, a narrow internet serves the knowledge-hungry better than no internet. The article goes on to argue “And then Facebook’s Zero product features a tiny job site like Babajob instead of the industry-leading Naukri. Why? So that the poor have fewer job options? No one knows. “. Well, sir, a fewer job options are better than no job options.

The article also slams Internet.org for not including Google in them and tries to find pecuniary reasons for it.” While Facebook and Google have pretty much the same number of users – around 1.3 billion worldwide – the former makes $12 billion off them and the latter makes $66 billion – a full 5 times more per user. Not being able to bridge this gap, it probably figured it had to do all it can to increase that number of users – while not letting them go to Google for search.” To be a part of Internet.org, it is Google who should apply and Internet.org can’t coerce any service to be a part of their movement.

Moreover, for a poor man, Bing might be a nugget when he may have no access to Google. In the article titled “Dear Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook is not, and should not be the internet” that appeared in Hindustan Times, it is argued that Internet.org is an attempt to fool the poor or the people at the bottom of the pyramid into thinking that Facebook and internet are one and the same. However, if Internet.org’s goal of making people use the whole internet materializes, then won’t the poor actually realize that the Internet and Facebook are different? Can’t a simple search in Bing through internet.org make the bottom of the pyramid wise to the fact that the Internet is actually broader? Won’t they be enlightened about the true nature of the Internet if they read a few articles that elucidate the difference between Internet.org and the internet? Lack of proper information is what clouds their mind, which is exactly what Internet.org is vying to negate. And why is the media bothered about the base of the pyramid’s inability to differentiate the internet from Facebook, when they turn a blind eye to their inability to connect to the internet?

Even if people believe that Facebook and the internet are the same, is it not better than people not having access to the internet? The article further contends that it is the telecom operators and Facebook that decide which service is offered free. However, Mark Zuckerberg insists that Internet.org works with the telecom operators and the government to choose the free services. If the notion that a democratic government represents its people is true, then it can be surmised that people indirectly have a say in Internet.org.

On the flip side, it will be better if Facebook publishes its policies and criteria which they utilize in choosing the services. The article concludes saying that “Mr. Zuckerberg was considered somewhat of a child prodigy, in large parts due to being exposed to computer programming at an early age and the freedom to tinker and learn in an open environment. The children Mr. Zuckerberg met in the school in Chandauli deserve the same experience and opportunities when it comes to an open and free Internet, as much as their urban or richer peers.” Again, that is the goal of Internet.org-to bring internet to the parts of the world that have no internet access.

Author Issie Lapowsky, of wired.com in his article “Mark Zuckerberg Can’t Have It Both Ways on Net Neutrality”, made a very sound argument, staying neutral in analyzing Internet.org. “For the companies, it means the power to decide which Internet users they’re able to reach is out of their hands. Instead, it’s up to Internet.org, local governments, and carriers to decide which services are vital enough to secure a space within the Internet.org app. And for users, it means having access to only a sliver of what is supposed to be the worldwide web. As we’ve said before, this creates “an Internet for poor people.” It comes to terms with the perils that can be caused if the mind-set of the people turns out to be a free-internet loving one.

Internet.org, somehow, should take steps to explain the role of Internet.org as just an elevator that would take the people to the real internet. “In other words, is it okay to suspend some of the net neutrality absolutism the tech community has rallied behind in the US if it serves a greater good in the world’s poorest countries?” says the article, which is precisely what Zuckerberg indents to say indirectly. “Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity,” he writes.

“Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two-thirds of the world who are not connected.” As the founder of Facebook says in his video, we need to ask ourselves the question of whether we want to improve the lives of people or worry about the intellectual purity of technology. I will definitely nod to the first one-improving people’s life.

An article by Keval Shah in Mobiletor.com says, “But let’s start with the fact that only Reliance customers are eligible for free and selective Internet access through Facebook’s platform. Would any telecom operator who has been crying foul over losses in revenue due to people using cheaper communications options like WhatsApp, offer the web at no charge unless there was profit in it? “ Internet.org is available only on Reliance since that is the only network that has partnered with Internet.org. In some other countries, Internet.org works over more than one network provider. Malawi has internet.org functioning over two different networks, viz., TNM and Airtel. The article further states that “By tempting users through free Internet, network operators can ensure they reach a wider audience. Will it be at the cost of India going against net neutrality by regulating data-based services?” What is more important? Reaching more people or sticking to net neutrality a concept that suits developed countries like the USA but not developing nations like India? Is it compulsory to stick to net neutrality just because one has to stick to it, despite it standing in the way between the poor and the internet?

A comment by a lady that had 797 likes at the time of writing this article, which was posted in response to Zuckerberg’s post in Facebook said that “The answer is Mr. Zuckerberg, just like the douches sitting at the head of Reliance and Airtel, wants you to believe that he is bringing the free internet to you. Whereas, in reality, all it means is that they bring free Facebook to you! Hell, so none of you want to Google for a nearby hospital in case of an emergency or write a bigass blog criticising the government? YOU JUST WANT FREE FACEBOOK, IS IT?” This is a microcosm of the Indian mindset believing that Internet.org is to bring Facebook for free. Yes, Facebook is free but along with many other productive services. And you have Bing in Internet.org which you can use to search for a “nearby hospital”. And Facebook is not gratuitous either. The reason why people like the lady who made this comment and others are able to make their opinions clear is because they have a platform called Facebook- the fifth estate of a nation. The poor do not have access to Facebook, hence, we don’t hear them. And the poor who earned the access to Facebook through Internet.org are already thanking the initiative while the privileged ones are attempting to nail in the coffin of Internet.org.

The comment further alleges that “The Facebook Zero will surely let you Facebook for free even when your data pack is used up. Oh, but the minute you step into a browser, you start getting billed. Like crazy. Now, do you want to let websites like Facebook influence the gullible youth of our country into accessing websites? Don’t you want to make your own choices? Isn’t that what democracy means?” The answer to this comment is no different from the rebuttals to some of the above arguments. Facebook wants the youth to access websites since most do not have access. And choices can be made only if they are available. Being offered a bread to eat is better than being offered none. You can’t deny the offering of bread saying that there is no choice. The comment gets harsher towards the end. “Lastly, only BIG SHITS like Facebook and Flipkart can afford to pay up Airtel and Reliance so that these ISPs, in turn, let you access their websites for free. NOW HOW THE HELL DOES AN AVERAGE INDIAN CITIZEN BENEFIT FROM GETTING FREE ACCESS TO FLIPKART OR FACEBOOK?” She fails to know that Facebook does not pay telecom providers.

Furthermore, the answer to the question that turns the benefits of Facebook into question lies in the election results of both Sri Lanka and India in the recent past. In addition, it was Facebook that helped her post her view and express her opinions. Her comment received a lot of responses, both corroborating her views and censuring them.  Replying to a reply comment she argued, “Would you be okay if you had all-day free access to Facebook, and Times of India, but had to pay heavily if you want to browse the rest of the internet that lies beyond its wall? Mark says, the Indian citizens are going to benefit by theinternet.org. How? Does she want a free internet? Or is she trying to imply that the internet should either be completely (heavily by her own wording) charged or should not be charged at all?

The Indian citizens who live below poverty line would be benefited vehemently if they at least get to use the ‘walled internet’. The internet outside the wall might be a luxury to them, but at least they get to access some. When another user confronted her saying Internet.org actually provides 30 web services free and not just Facebook, she retorted asking “Do 30 websites qualify as the internet?” It received a perfect response from a different user. “30 website don’t qualify as internet, she wants everything for free, and oh that’s neutrality…. First she counters that only fb isn’t enough, when some gentleman gave her wisdom, then she wants everything for free…perfect example of stupidy, where she said something just because she had to say something…. Duh”

Another argument is that if Mark Zuckerberg wants to provide free internet, he could join forces with network providers to confer a free data cap to users which would give the users the right to choose what service they want. The practical constraint in this is that, when a particular amount of data, 1 GB, for instance, is given away, most of it would be used by city dwellers on social media and instant messengers, which contain a lot of rich web content such as images and videos. Hence, telecommunication providers will incur a lot of loss, since a lot of data will be given away for free and there would be no mean by which the ISP could recover the money that is spent on network infrastructure and maintenance. But, in the case of internet.org, only a limited amount of web services are available free of charge and even those have been modified to consume fewer data to ensure that the free service sustainable.

It is true that particular aspects of net neutrality are breached by internet.org in a way that certain services are made free. But that does not mean, ordinary users like you and I will be bereft of choices. If we want to choose a different service, we can always use conventional internet. But for a poor boy or girl sitting in a corner of the world with an idea in its nascent state occupying his/he brain that could change the world, a free service is a godsend. If you are going to say, they should be given the right to choose what they get free of charge, then please provide them with free internet. I believe connecting the whole world is much more important than the theoretical concept of net neutrality much of which originates from the USA. India’s reaction to internet.org has its genesis from the Zero-rating plan of Airtel which is a blatant violation of net neutrality for monetary gains. But measuring both Airtel Zero and Internet.org through the same scale is highly erroneous.

It is a typical South Asian attitude to regard the CEOs and business tycoons as pernicious felons. Anyone who is rich or good enough to earn more money loses his/her credence in our society. The incredulity our society has on the billionaires is because as the famous Adidas football ad says “they hate your shoes because they wished they were in it”. You can’t deny a platform that has the potential to change the world just because you have to, to show that you are not gullible but intelligent since opposing popular opinions, according to many in this society, is a mark of wisdom that helps you stand out. Mark Zuckerberg is first a computer programmer before he is an entrepreneur.

The goal of Facebook was to connect the entire world. In fact, it was his goal of connecting the entire world that made Facebook acquire the famous instant messaging service WhatsApp, the co-founder of which also shares the same dream. Over the years, governments and the United Nations have made several attempts to connect the rural regions of the world. UNESCO tried taking the internet to the remote regions of Sri Lanka by establishing an Internet Community Radio in Kothmale whereby people can communicate with radio jockeys to browse the World Wide Web to search for the information they need.

The project was also instrumental in establishing free Internet Cafes but financial constraints made sure that its expansion was impeded. What Facebook is doing, should have been done by governments. Hence, Facebook assumes the role of a government as far as communication is concerned. By incorporating academics and professionals, Facebook aims to create content in a myriad of local languages so that the lack of fluency in English will never be a limiting factor for learning.

Whether or not Facebook actually makes a profit should not be a concern as long as more and more people start using the internet. Having said that, nobody should pay Facebook or any telecommunication operator to be included in Internet.org, which will be perilous to a neutral internet. But if Facebook actually have goals of expanding their user base through Internet.org, then we should be able to pay it as a fair price for the enormity of the benefits we will be getting as a result.

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