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Facebook and India: Introducing a digital caste system


The social media behemoth is seeking a massive digital 'land grab' to enclose the future of the country's internet, writes Chris Spannos.

All societies share rich commons, the cultural and material resources shared by all, and owned equally by either everyone or no one. The air we can freely breathe, the sun that shines on us all. We once shared land too, but the development of small landholding enclosures created private property.

Now there’s a looming enclosure of the digital commons, with Facebook threatening to capture the future of India's internet. Its 'Free Basics' service threatens to limit free access to the digital sphere.

Free Basics is currently available in 37 countries and allows users to access a limited range of internet services. Users are able to visit specific and previously selected websites that offer news and information about weather and jobs. It is based on the audacious assumption that Facebook knows, and has the right to choose for users, what websites and applications are best for them. Only those who can pay would access the full internet, creating a two-tiered system.

Free Basics was launched in India in 2015 but last December the country's telecommunications regulator shut it down while it assessed pricing rules. The regulator is expected to make a decision on whether Free Basics can continue operating in the country before the end of this month. While the jury is currently still out on Free Basics’ future in India, Facebook is lobbying hard to stay. Writing in The Times of India, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has argued that in the 21st century everyone 'deserves access to the tools and information that can help them to achieve...all their fundamental social and economic rights.'

Zuckerberg is right in this, but wrong that this naturally leads to embracing Facebook’s duplicitously named Free Basics internet access. Limited access is not freedom, it is enclosed access and transforms a rich digital ecosystem into a stunted ‘walled garden’.

It is a 'fact', Zuckerberg claims, that 'when people have access to free basic internet services, these quickly overcome the digital divide.' Despite the rapid spread of digital technologies, their benefits have not spread commensurately or evenly. In order to overcome the divide more access to technology, including an unrestricted internet, is necessary.

The World Bank's recently published World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends observes that an open and free internet is a 'key contributing factor to innovation in the digital economy' and must be protected. In many countries a free and open internet, known as 'net neutrality', is considered a vital constituent of freedom of expression and access to information, which are protected as human rights. The United Nations has enshrined the right to information in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The World Bank argues that the management of internet traffic (through programmes like Facebook’s Free Basics) 'should not reduce the enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms, particularly freedom of expression'. Referring specifically to Free Basics, the World Bank says that it appears 'to be the antithesis of net neutrality'.

Facebook likes to be perceived as the friendly company connecting people despite distances, and enabling a wide community of ‘friends’ to share both mundane as well as life-changing moments. So, the charge of limiting freedom of expression, and creating net partiality is one that the company has responded to with rigour. It launched a multimillion dollar 'blitzkrieg' ad campaign for Free Basics in India, including buying spots on billboards, TV, and daily national newspapers.

Sadanand Dhume, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Wall Street Journal columnist, has come to the company’s defence, arguing that limited internet access is a lot better than no access at all. There is a 'pressing need to provide internet access to the four in five Indians who lack it,' Dhume argues.

These claims ignore the crucial role that the internet plays in furthering freedom of expression. Research conducted at the Oxford Internet Institute finds that low income groups prefer access to an open and unrestricted internet. The trade-off they are willing to make is how much they use the internet, not necessarily how much of the internet they get to use.

With 1.2 billion people and everyone over the age of 18 entitled to vote India is often described as the world's largest democracy. A free and open internet is fundamental to having an informed populace. Facebook is a company that regulates what its own users see on their own news feeds. There is no reason to trust a company of its size to know what news and information sources are best for the citizens of India.

Does India need Facebook? No. Rural wireless communications are among numerous ground breaking technologies emerging. The RAND corporation report Global Technology Revolution 2020, published in 2006, forecast that the scientific advancement of rural wireless communications will make significant leaps toward widespread application.

There are low scientific and legal barriers to developing this technology. Thanks to a recent boom in smartphone ownership, 400 million Indians have internet access, yet 70 per cent of the country’s overall population still live in rural areas. There is huge demand for it. India is a major powerhouse in technological development. By some estimates Indian programmers, and developers produce 55 per cent of US consumed information technology. The country could rely on its own capacity and infrastructure to provide unrestrained internet for all citizens who want it.

Why does Facebook need India? Carrying the white man's burden, Zuckerberg argues that Free Basics is necessary for opening up economic progress and development. Capturing the next billion internet users would enable Facebook to justify a tiered – and ultimately profitable – internet system in the country. India is a highly unequal society. Those that can afford an open internet, have the funds to pay disproportionately for it. Those who cannot, would have to settle for less.

In addition, Free Basics is a product aiming to bring a small piece of the internet to the ‘next billion’ of global consumers currently on the periphery of global development. It would create profiles on these billion people and be able to mine data for any purpose it wants into the future. With this amount of data it would aim to capture innovation and vast marketing opportunities.

The internet is a platform that enables advances in education, science, medicine, culture, and more. Allowing Facebook to enclose India's digital commons would continue to advance global inequality between, and within, nations, introducing a digital caste system. While Indians are already fighting their own home-grown government censorship of the internet, transparent leadership could help India meet its own demands, providing rural wireless internet for its own population – with its own skill, knowledge and talent. This could spur further digital innovation and change.

Chris Spannos is Digital Editor for New Internationalist.

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