So, what could be wrong with free Internet?

Last Updated 04 January 2016, 18:21 IST

Facebook has been splurging money on a simple argument, what’s wrong with giving free Internet to those who cannot afford it, even if it is somewhat limited?

Isn’t it better than having no Internet? The Free Basics package will especially include content most relevant to people in poverty. Everyone, meanwhile, retains the same right to access the full Internet as they had before. But why are so many against this apparent act of selfless service?

If indeed the idea is to ensure an Internet for all, whether one can afford it or not, it is best done by declaring a basic access to the Internet as a right. And making it a licensing condition for telcos to provide every citizen a minimum monthly quota of free telephone time and data.

Further, with increasing digitalisation of governance and other essential services, it can be mandated that access to all such basic services, as identified by the regulator and not a private company like Facebook, will remain free of any data/call charges, at all times. One cannot be denied access to basic public and other essential/emergency services for having run out of one’s data package. If the Free Basics debate is really about the digital rights of the marginalised, then these are the directions to think in.

Normally, the most forceful point against Net Neutrality has been that it will stifle investment by reducing telcos’ profits. This more honest argument looks the opposite of the one expressing corporate zeal for serving the excluded, even at the expense of earning revenue. It is therefore worth inquiring how free services can enhance revenues and what can be wrong with it.

The real problem with Free Basics, or zero rating, requires us to first understand the nature and role of the Internet in the emerging digital network society. The Internet is not only a telecommunication system, or just a new social media. In early years of the industrial revolution, the media first got called as the fourth estate. As recognition of its social role grew, the media attracted special regulatory approaches and was not treated as a normal commercial sector.

Today, with an emerging digital network society, it is similarly important to understand the Internet as a new kind of horizontal, foundational and a social layer. It is causing and underpinning far-reaching digital transformations across all sectors of society, from governance, democracy, education and health, to transport and entertainment, to work, trade and business.

The regulation of the Internet must focus on this unique social-structural role. Internet platforms is a useful emerging regulatory term, especially in Europe.The Internet being foundational to our digitally reprogrammed social systems, it is important to ensure its complete neutrality, providing a fully even-playing field to all actors and activities on it.

True to the foundation/superstructure analogy, the smallest unevenness, or relative advantage/disadvantage, in the Internet layer, can get magnified manifold in its actual impact in every sector, and thus overall on society. This is why it is so important to protect ex-ante the basic design of the Internet, of which full Net Neutrality is a core principle.

Any distortion in its basic design will get magnified and incorporated into the superstructure, affecting all areas of society. The decisions that we face today about Internet’s regulation thus pertain to the very design of the emerging social paradigm, especially in terms of its egalitarian potential.

The current early stages of the digital network society suggests a tendency towards increased monopolisation in every sector as it becomes digital. All digital social systems require the public Internet as the essential public layer to connect to the people. It thus becomes the all-important manoeuvring zone for people, enabling some degree of resistance to monopolisation, allowing interoperability and switch-overs across different options.

But if this public connectivity layer is also allowed to be rigged, by selling privileged transit over it, the risk of monopolisation and lock-ins by a few corporates over key social sectors gets greatly enhanced. This is the real problem with zero or differential rating, where connectivity costs for consumers are fully or partly offset by content providers in exchange for subverting the egalitarian design of the Internet. This original design ensures that all content on the Internet is given exactly the same treatment.

Cause for inequity

One can already predict monopoly in digital education and health service companies, for instance, becoming a societal challenge, within the next few years. If they are also able to have privileged access to people through zero rating, it would be as good, or bad, as handing over our education and health sectors to them.

This extraordinary value of the Internet as the people connecting layer means that it is a small price for the monopoly-inclined corporates to pay the telcos for its privileged use, rather than the consumers paying for connectivity. Telcos also realise that, while the value transiting through their networks with increasing digitalisation of society is almost limitless, what they can charge consumers for connectivity has its limits.

Instead, charging those who use a privileged transit over their networks to consolidate monopolies, and profiteer from it, is an ever expanding source of revenue. Facebook may, right now, not be paying anything to Reliance for Free Basics, but telcos’ only long-term interest in allowing such free use of their network is to open up the possibility of Net Neutrality violations, leading to revenue streams from the content providers’ side. The proverbial thin end of the wedge!

Once such a defect in the Internet’s basic design, meaning the zero or differential rating model, is allowed to take root, given the extremely high economic stakes involved, it will quickly propagate and consolidate as the default. At that stage, it may be impossible to reverse it. Strong regulatory intervention is, therefore, urgently required to expressly and fully disallow this model, which alone can keep the Internet open and egalitarian.

Facebook is basically arguing that the poor cannot afford regulatory protections about what kind of media/ Internet they get. It is similar to a media organisation offering free or cheaper news to the poor in exchange for being released from regulatory constraints, like the ban on paid news, and keeping a minimum ratio of editorial to advertisement space.

So we get two versions of a healthy Internet–like healthy media, healthy education system and well-regulated health sector–one for the rich and another for the poor. The politico-ideological basis of such reasoning is quite problematic and is made worse when unleashed in the name of “digital equality.”

(The writer is Executive Director, IT for Change)

(Published 04 January 2016, 18:21 IST)

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