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-The author is a practicing Advocate at Madras High Court

Free!!!” A word that garners instant recognition to any product it is associated with; that, along with the country’s favourite social networking site promoting it. Seems like an outright bonanza for any internet user doesn’t it? Sadly, like all things “free” there’s a catch. It’s not free after all!.

With newsfeeds flooding with notifications in support of free basics, one could hardly resist the temptation to go with the crowd at least until realising that an average minded internet user with half baked curiosity would pledge non-committal support to anything new that’s on social media. But facebook’s vehement campaign with billboards, first page newspaper ads and the like makes one wonder if there’s more to what meets the eye. And apart from getting people addicted to the internet free basics does very little to the proposed benefiters.

Freebasics an exaggerated version of the seeks to encourage subsidised data to those who cannot afford to access the internet. This they plan to do with the aid of mobile operators through smart phones. Emerging as the face of this so-called revolutionary concept, it free rides on the ignorance of the masses, the funds of the government and the costs borne by the mobile operators which no doubt would be reimbursed by the paying users. The actual benefiter being facebook, by providing passage to the web would get access to billions of people and their potential without investment, save the advertisement and campaign costs.

Free basics does exactly what a movie trailer does for you. The idea is to give the user a taste of the internet, just long enough for him to get dependent and then optimise the internet user to make him access the paid and premium parts. Surprisingly, facebook has not tried to hide this fact as it takes its place in the set of goals that freebasics and its content givers should aspire to attain. While Freebasics boasts of adfree services, it is highly unlikely that it would continue that way forever. However, being part of freebasics itself can be seen as a platform for advertisement and agreeably these bits of advertisements do contain some relevant data.

Facebook’s revenue model is based on monetising our personal data and selling them to advertisers. Facebook doesn’t pay a single paise as tax despite the revenue it generates from India. It refuses to be sued in India for violations on competition and advertisement laws that prohibits the use of generic words to brands and products. Only recently facebook was criticised for conducting a project without the consent of the participants as to see whether people’s views could be manipulated based on the content in their newsfeed and the results were positive. If so by being able to manoeuvre the views of the masses, in collaboration with certain elements, it could create a revolution, revolt, a change for the better or the worse. Such collaborations could be political, economic or social with the potential to create an economic crises, a political uprising or even a war. Much like how it tried to manipulate people into believing that free basics was free or the manipulated statistics it sent in support of free basics to the consultation paper floated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

Not only that, facebook has been slammed for breaching consumer privacy while selling data. Facebooks license agreement would apply to free basics as well and any content uploaded as part of freebasics would need to pass through facebooks servers and it reserved the right to reject applications of the content producers who ultimately would be forced to comply with facebooks terms.

And yes facebook is ambitious, it has started 2016 with the bold claim that it intends to eradicate phone numbers and replace web browsing planning to be the centre of the world. “Internet” in the present day scenario is fundamental to the functioning of the world and spreading its tentacles to get its hold on almost everything. By promoting a concept that is the exact opposite of net neutrality that involves the principle that users must have access to all content without discrimination to the source and content of the data accessed, and breaching the competition laws of the country; it aspires to get hold of this indispensible necessity that will control the future.

The consultation paper that TRAI released had insightful views as to why discriminatory pricing policy even as an exception should be pro-competition, transparent, non discriminatory and non predatory. Had TRAI ruled against net neutrality, there would have been yet another demonstration to distribute smart phone and if it doesn’t accuse the government of wanting to keep its citizens in the dark by not providing them the right to information. Thankfully following suit from countries like Egypt and Brazil, the Telecom Regulatory Authority had ruled in favour of net neutrality, temporarily stalling facebook’s ambitious schemes.

Undeniably, India is paying higher prices for data than most other countries. There certainly are more cost-effective ways that India could opt for instead than to put itself at the mercy of a private company with its roots in a capitalistic economy. Mark Zuckerburg argued that internet to those below poverty is priceless, its high time one reminded him that for those below poverty food, clothing, medication, education and shelter are priceless.

If you don’t have bread, update status”

Being the facebook era Marie Antonette are we Mark Zuckerberg?


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