Facebook’s “Save Free Basics In India” Campaign Provokes Controversy

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Facebook is calling on Indian users to send an email to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), asking the government agency to support its Free Basics program. The campaign, which shows up when users sign onto the social media platform and includes a pre-filled form so they don’t even have to write an email, has already proven controversial, with opponents saying its message undermines net neutrality in India.

Free Basics, which became available throughout India last month, is a program by Facebook initiative Internet.org to provide basic Internet services, like search, Wikipedia, health information, and weather updates, for free to all users. While it sounds altruistic, Free Basics has the potential to drive reams of traffic to sites from certain providers (including Facebook) at the expense of others, which violates the principles of net neutrality. The TRAI plans to hold a public hearing on net neutrality next month.

India is currently Facebook’s second-biggest market after the U.S., with 130 million users, and many net neutrality advocates believe that its campaign is another example of how the company is misusing its size and influence to form the opinions of Internet users in emerging economies.

The form, which shows up automatically for many users in India, is titled “Act Now To Save Free Basics In India,” includes a message that reads:

“Free Basics gives people access to vital services, such as communication, healthcare, education, job listings and farming information—all without data charges. It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help with getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile networks.

However, Free Basics is in danger in India. A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic Internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all Internet services, even if that means 1 billion people can’t afford to access any services.

“The TRAI is holding a public debate that will affect whether free basic Internet services can be offered in India. Your voice is important for the 1 billion Indian people who are not yet connected and don’t have a voice on the Internet. Unless you take action now, India could lose access to free basic Internet services, delaying progress toward digital equality for all Indians. Tell the TRAI that you support Free Basics and digital equality in India.”

In a pre-filled box, which sends an email to TRAI as soon as users hit a button, Facebook wrote:

“To the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, I support digital equality for India. Free Basics provides free access to essential internet services like communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and more. It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile operators. With one billion Indian people not yet connected, shutting down Free Basics would hurt our country’s most vulnerable people. I support Free Basics – and digital equality for India. Thank you.”

Many people took issue with both the content and tone of Facebook’s message. For example, Trak.in, a tech blog, called the campaign “entirely false and misleading,” while newspaper The Times of India (which is run by net neutrality supporter The Times Group), stated in an editorial that “Facebook is just trying to play on the fact that most of us click the like button on its platform without reading or understanding the complete picture.”

When asked about the controversy, Facebook reiterated in a statement that it believes Free Basics will help people get full Internet access more quickly:

“Hundreds of millions of people in India use the Internet every day and understand the benefits it can bring. This campaign gives people the opportunity to support digital equality in India. It lets people speak in support of the one billion people in India who remain unconnected, and lets them participate in the public debate that is being held by The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on differential pricing for data services. And it gives them the opportunity to support Free Basics, which is proven to bring more people online and accelerate full internet adoption.”

Featured Image: Promesa Art Studio/Shutterstock