Net neutrality

Poor internet for poor people: Why Facebook’s Internet.org amounts to economic racism

Quartz india
Quartz india

This post has been corrected.

Perhaps you’ve been following the news from the digital front in India—there’s been a significant movement in support of net neutrality.

This is the concept that holds, among other things, that all bits and bytes should be treated the same on all telco and carrier networks, so that all users can have their experience of exactly the same internet, with no bias for or against any site for any reason.

Over 750,000 emails have been to the Telecom Authority of India (TRAI), the telecom regulator, from http://savetheinternet.in in the last week. This in itself is unprecedented. (Savetheinternet.in is a webpage created as a platform for consumers to send their responses to TRAI.)

Deep distrust of Zero, in the land that invented it.

One sidelight that has assumed much larger proportions now is the status of “Zero Rating” services. Simply put, these are products where a set of websites are bundled and users get to surf them for free, because the bandwidth in these cases is paid to the operator by the sites themselves.

Two of the more infamous zero offerings are Airtel Zero and Facebook’s Internet.org.

The Airtel offering has been trying to present itself as a “marketing platform for apps.” You might say, so what’s the problem with that? Look at it this way—if internet access is offered for free, then one can assume that folks will rush to spend time there—and many of these folks will be the economically less-advantaged ones. There’s no other part of the internet they can go to from here 

Once they log in, though, they’ll end up seeing only a handful of sites that have typically paid a large chunk of money to be there. And those that have paid these placement fees essentially now sit at the ‘front door’ of the internet to these newbie users —and they will raise their prices to make back the hefty fees they’ve paid to get their prime spots. Also, from the user’s point of view, there’s no other part of the internet they can go to from here.

In every way, from exploiting the poor, to being a restrictive trade practice because startups won’t have a chance to be discovered by users via word of mouth because they can’t afford the placement fees, to simply denying the wonder and the width of the internet to the young and knowledge-hungry—this practice is terrible.

And 750,000 people thought so too, to write to the government to stop it.

Both the Zero services—Airtel’s and Facebook’s—have had bad days lately, with Flipkart leaving the former and a line of Indian internet firms: Cleartrip, NewsHunt, NDTV and Times Group (partly) leaving the latter.

Zuckerberg defends his apparent charity

While the telcos—especially Airtel—hide behind their increasingly harried-sounding industry group the Cellular Operators Association of India, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook decided to go on the offence with an “editorial piece” in a leading newspaper where he tried to defend his product Internet.org as some sort of world-changing corporate social responsibility (CSR) effort born from the goodness of his heart.

Internet.org is slightly different from the Airtel product. While Airtel guys are open that they’re launching Zero to make money because they say they don’t make enough right now— last years’ net profits of Rs9,500 crores ($1.5 billion) notwithstanding, Zuckerberg is slightly more subtle.

Here’s how the scheme works. Facebook partners with a telco—in India’s case, Reliance—and offers free access to Facebook site and a small group of other sites. (Facebook does not pay the telecom company but the social networking giant does put money behind promoting the service in public—which is some sort of an indirect promotion of the operator because the service is only available through them.)

So when the poor, who in theory can’t afford a net connection come to the Facebook Zero service confusingly called Internet.org, they’re made to believe they’re on the internet while in reality they’re only on Facebook and a few hand-picked sites.

And the sites too are picked in secret under some unknown process. For instance, Facebook chose to offer the distant-second search engine Bing instead of industry-leading Google. Why? Is it rivalry with Google? Or because of Microsoft’s stake in Facebook? And then Facebook’s Zero product features a tiny job site like Babajob instead of the industry-leading Naukri. Why? So that the poor have fewer job options? No one knows. It doesn’t really look like charity any more, does it?  Internet.org offers the distant-second search engine Bing instead of Google. Why? 

Indian journalist Nikhil Pahwa has responded to Zuckerberg’s editorial, by pointing out research after research that shows zero services around the world universally tend to do badly for the people who use them. It all seems to amount to economic racism—exploiting the poor in under-developed parts of the world to become your customers under the guise of some apparent charitable purpose. While offering them a shoddy, stunted version of the real thing. As Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of payments app PayTM, puts it: “It’s poor internet for poor people”.

In perfect irony, Zuckerberg talks about seeing the wonder of a kid in a remote Indian village discovering the power of the internet. The upshot being that if Zuckerberg—himself a child prodigy—ever was brought up on internet.org, he couldn’t have ever built a Facebook.

Internet Dot Org neither offers the internet to its users—nor is a dot org, denoting a charitable organisation. It just seems to be a cloaked proxy for the Facebook Economically Disadvantaged User Acquisition Department.

Indian political leaders reject the charity

Two of the more digitally astute Indian politicians—Naveen Patnaik of Odisha and Arvind Kejriwal of Delhi state— who together represent more than 60 million Indians—have weighed in against Facebook and Airtel’s Zero efforts.

The Odisha Chief Minister says in his letter to the regulator that “While the underprivileged deserve much more than what is available, nobody should decide what exactly are their requirements. If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their rights to choose what they think is best for them.”

The Aam Aadmi Party says: “The Aam Aadmi Party believes that the innovative youth of this country will give us the next Google, Facebook or Whatsapp. However, if some websites or applications or services are offered free or at faster speeds, the balance tips towards established players with deeper pockets which kills the innovative young start-ups that will emanate from this ecosystem.”

The ruling party, the BJP, has made noises about net neutrality and non-discriminatory availability of the internet, it’s still adopting a wait-and watch attitude to the actual regulation process.

Neutrality in Silicon Valley, but not in Araku Valley

Meanwhile the heat is turning up on other Silicon Valley firms who are part of these Zero efforts. Google, which led a loud battle in the US for net neutrality, has quietly been part of the Airtel Zero product in India, in shining hypocricy to its stance in the West. Twitter has done the same too, managing to speak out of both sides of its mouth, being part of the Airtel Zero plan in India while singing hosannas to neutrality in the US.

 Google, which led a loud battle in the US for net neutrality, has quietly been part of the Airtel Zero. 

While Airtel has a long history of playing fast and loose with customers, one wonders why Facebook had to do this. Perhaps the flat stock price is one reason.

While Facebook and Google have pretty much the same number of users —around 1.3 billion worldwide—the former makes $12 billion off them and the latter makes $66 billion—a full 5 times more per user. Not being able to bridge this gap, it probably figured it had to do all it can to increase that number of users—while not letting them go to Google for search.

Ergo, Internet.org, all dressed up as some well-meaning Silicon Valley philanthropy.

We’ll never know, though. But it increasingly looks like India is saying “thanks, but no thanks” to Facebook and Airtel’s Zero efforts.

Perhaps the only way the second world and the third world can grow is to behave like they’re first world nations, and demand to be treated on par with every other netizen in the world.

Oh, we’re not done yet. The battle still rages. And it doesn’t look like Facebook and Airtel are done yet.

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that the Internet.org service does not support video in India, and the text has been clarified with regards to the financial relationship between Facebook and carriers.

Follow Mahesh on Twitter @maheshmurthy. This post first appeared on LinkedIn.com. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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