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No, Mr Zuckerberg: India's fight for freedom against Facebook


Students in Hyderabad protest against Facebook. The yellow sign reads: ‘Defend net neutrality’. © Mahesh Kumar/AP Photo

Early this year saw an unexpected victory for Indian activists. An unlikely group of free-software, net-neutrality and leftist activists stopped Facebook – one of the most powerful Silicon Valley giants – from introducing its Free Basics platform in India.

Free Basics, which has already been successfully introduced in 37 countries, offers a few websites for free, while barring the rest of the internet. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) backed the activists, arguing that the Free Basics platform, offered by a handful of telecom companies (telcos) partnering with Facebook, is discriminatory and against the interests of subscribers.

Facebook has revenue higher than the annual GDP of three-quarters of the world’s countries; for such a company, the Indian defeat was a heavy blow indeed. What made the blow more painful was that CEO Mark Zuckerberg had personally led the $60-million high-voltage advertising campaign promoting Free Basics in India.

The message of the campaign: Mark Zuckerberg, a new messiah for the Indian poor, was offering a free, basic version of the internet. And opponents of this offer were just rich, anti-poor kids with fancy ideas of net neutrality. Zuckerberg was everywhere – from billboards to advertorials in every newspaper and on every TV channel. The question he asked over and over again was: ‘Isn’t something better than nothing?’

Neither free nor basic

The loose coalition of activists countered this question. Just because Facebook calls it Free Basics, they pointed out, does not make it either free or a basic internet. Free Basics, simply put, is about 100 services offered by Facebook and its partners out of the nearly billion services available on the internet. Nor is it free: users pay by giving away their personal data. As the internet saying goes: if you are not paying for it, you are the product.

The victory of the activists in India against Facebook… is the first fight that a major internet giant has lost

At the heart of the Free Basics battle is the concept of net neutrality as a basic principle for a free and open internet. Out of 3.5 billion internet users, almost a billion create content. In other words, one out of roughly every three and a half users creates as well as consumes content. This is possible as long as both those providing and those receiving content have access to the internet. Once this connection exists, any site anywhere can be accessed by anybody. The internet service providers (ISPs) – generally the telcos (or the cable TV platforms, as in the US) – cannot and should not be gatekeepers, deciding which service or site will get access to their subscribers. On a Free Basic platform, Facebook and its telco partners are such gatekeepers.

Content here refers not only to web pages, but also applications and services offered on the internet. Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the term ‘net neutrality’, pointed out that it’s the absence of gatekeepers for content providers and consumers that makes possible the huge burst of innovation and creativity on the internet. Once there are gatekeepers, monopoly pricing and extraction of monopoly rent inevitably follow – by those who control the broadband internet infrastructure, namely the telecom and cable companies.

Tim Wu was working with Silicon Valley start-ups during the dot.com bubble, when he was sickened by companies selling different methods of blocking or slowing down traffic. In an interview with The New York Times, he said: ‘The idea that the private sector, the free market, on its own has all the solutions is just a myth... when it’s just about money, there are no values.’1 Wu finally left Silicon Valley, took up a teaching job, and got in touch with his old professor Lawrence Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons. This led to the birth of net neutrality as a regulatory principle of the internet.

The earlier net-neutrality battle was about telcos wanting a cut from the revenue of internet companies to provide access to their subscribers. The internet companies, then the new kids on the block, worked with the internet users to defeat the telcos. Today, telcos such as AT&T, Vodafone and Airtel, despite being big shots in their markets, play second fiddle to internet giants such as Google and Facebook. It is the internet biggies who are now discovering the virtues of monopoly and tying up with telcos. For example, Facebook tied up with Reliance, the fourth-largest telecom provider in India, to offer Free Basics; in Africa, it has tied up with Airtel.

India has 125 million Facebook users.

Facebook knows that a large number who join up to platforms such as Free Basics would come to believe that Facebook is indeed the internet; or that it is all they need. India, with 125 million subscribers, is already the second-biggest market for Facebook after the US. With another 500 million possible subscribers in the next decade, India is Facebook’s biggest target, particularly as the company is barred from the booming Chinese market.

As more and more services move to the internet, as newspapers fold to be replaced by digital editions, the power of the internet monopolies is growing to enormous proportions. Facebook has 1.6 billion users; Google’s search engine and free email has near monopoly among 3.5 billion internet users. They can make or break different brands by changing their ranking on a search, or promoting it on their pages. Tomorrow, they could decide key political questions by simply tweaking the algorithms that determine what we see on such platforms.

Net neutrality

The victory of the activists in India against Facebook, and for a free and open internet, is an important one. It is the first fight that a major internet giant has lost; and that too after investing so much effort and money.

The Washington Consensus is morphing into the Washington-Silicon Valley Consensus

The petulant and now infamous response from Facebook’s Marc Andreessen – ‘anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?’ – caused a furore online. Facebook was forced to distance itself from the comment and Andreessen apologized and retracted it.2

Similar struggles on net neutrality are taking place globally. It is possible to build larger coalitions of the Left, netizens and diverse activist groups on such issues and create popular resistance to the new model, what professors Robert McChesney, Shoshana Zuboff and others have described as ‘surveillance capitalism’. The lifeblood of this form of capitalism is converting personal data, which earlier was outside capitalist relations, to a commodity form, and creating new forms of monopoly through the ownership of this data.

If finance capital under the neoliberal model weakened the powers of the state to regulate capital, the internet monopolies aim to subvert all state institutions, including the multilateral ones. The Washington Consensus is morphing into the Washington-Silicon Valley Consensus. Tech companies will solve all the problems of the world – if we just connect our toasters and washing machines to the internet, and hand over our data to them. The World Economic Forum at Davos declared that embedding intelligence in machines and the Internet of Things will lead to the fourth industrial revolution. Those who control the platforms on the internet will mediate between us and this world; control what we see, buy or learn. The fight for a free and a democratic internet is just a small battle in the much larger struggle to be waged against the emerging Washington-Silicon Valley Consensus.

Prabir Purkayastha is vice-president of the Free Software Movement of India. His work can be seen on newsclick.in

  1. Jeff Sommer, ‘Defending the Open Internet’, The New York Times, 10 May 2014, nin.tl/net-freedom
  2. theguardian.com, nin.tl/colonialism-gaffe

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