Splitting Internet into walled networks

Splitting Internet into walled networks
Internet.org states that the goal of the Facebook-led initiative is to provide access and benefits of connectivity to two-thirds of the world, which doesn’t have it, an objective governments across the globe and the civil society have been trying to achieve and no one would have any objection to that. 

But when Free Basics, a bouquet of select sites, including Facebook, is offered as the answer to the problem of access, that is treating the citizens of the global south as “less equal” who don’t deserve the entire open Internet.

The Internet as we know today is dominated by a few monopolies, whether it is Facebook for social networking or Google for search purposes. These monopolies have emerged in a relatively short period upsetting their competitors, be it MySpace or AltaVista. Their success was due to the open nature of the Internet permitting anyone to innovate without permission and the whole world being able to access their services.

Facebook clearly sees that in order to continue its domination in the social networking space, it needs to expand in the global south. Its user base is reaching saturation in the developed world and the growth would have to be driven by the users in the developing world.

At present, Free Basics is claimed to be offered in 37 countries in Africa, Asia Pacific and Latin America. The intention is thus very clear. Facebook and any other corporate entity can design any method to increase its user base so long as it does not run foul with the law. The problem, however, is when corporate interests are camouflaged in the name of public interest of providing access.

Civil societies from countries across the world were quick to see through Facebook’s intentions and opposed it.  Internet.org, offered in partnership with Telenor in Pakistan, met with opposition from the civil society there as they said that it curtails innovation and jeopardises the growth of the Internet in the country. Facebook has dealt with the opposition through huge advertising and PR campaigns, often trying to discredit the opponents.

Nations across the world have identified increasing Internet access and connectivity as a key focus area for ensuring development and has firmed up their commitment in the “Tunis Agenda” approved at the World Summit on Information Society in 2005. In India, we have seen many governments, from the Centre to the block level, like in Kerala, which offer free Wi-Fi.
 
Digital literacy
Civil society organisations have also carried out various programmes across the country to improve digital literacy. While Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg has cited the case of one Ganesh who has benefited from Free Basics, civil society organisations can cite the cases of many persons, including students in slums, who have benefited from their programmes.

The rhetoric of “some access is better that no access” is propounded to promote the walled garden approach which helps Facebook by being the default social networking choice of millions of first time internet users. Most telecom service providers also seem to be supporting the zero-rating model with an eye on promoting their content and also content of their partners.  Access can be improved in a multitude of ways without violating the principles of Net Neutrality. There are various methods including ad supported services, data coupons and low monthly free data caps that have been proposed.

Zuckerburg has also claimed that Facebook fully supports the principle of Net Neutrality and that Free Basics does not violate it. The principle of Net Neutrality is about non-discrimination of services and providing no service a competitive advantage over others.

Free Basics, by acting as a gatekeeper offering a selection of services and sites, is clearly in violation of this principle. While Facebook at its infancy needed permission from none to innovate, it expects new startups to play by its rules.

With zero-rated services like Facebook, the open Internet is in danger of being split into islands of walled networks with the disadvantaged sections being relegated to the “basic” network. Free Basics, thus, instead of solving the digital divide, creates a new digital inequality. Free Basics also routes all traffic through their servers, thus exposing the private data of all users to Facebook and reducing security. Does that mean that the poor require less privacy and security?

Free Basics is creating a new digital inequality where the poor are given access to a few select sites decided by Facebook.  As Facebook sees it, in the digital world, some are more equal and some are less equal.

 (Sugathan is counsel and Choudhary is executive director at Software Freedom Law Centre, New Delhi)

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