Facebook have been keen on allowing countries access to Free Basics, their low-cost internet system designed at giving people the ability to create a Facebook account and access a limited number of sites at no cost. Free internet sounds great doesn’t it? Some countries don’t believe so, with India already banning the platform and the system being suspended within Egypt, over what now seems to be because the government was denied the ability denied the ability to spy on users.
The Free Basics platform in Egypt was suspended officially on December 30th, 2015, with sources now stating the reason for the suspension was that Facebook wouldn’t allow the government to circumvent the systems security, thereby allowing surveillance to be conducted on users of the platform. Etisalat, the mobile carrier that provided the service when it started in October 2015, hasn’t responded to comment while Facebook has declined to comment while the Egyptian government has declined to say what kind of surveillance or changes they wanted to be made to the service.
Officially the line given is that the service was considered “harmful to companies and their competitors”, a tale that while believable may be as well be an April fools joke to cover what can only be considered a request to invade and monitor everyone’s internet access. With limited access already and concerns about net neutrality for the scheme, if it was found to provide monitoring and tracking the “free” basics program would almost certainly see counties drop the system.
India’s national telecom regulator has banned Mark Zuckerberg’s “free” internet endeavour for violating net neutrality. Free Basics, formerly known as Internet.org, was designed to bring free internet to developing countries, but access to websites was restricted to Facebook’s commercial partners, meaning Free Basics users could only visit sites that had paid to be featured.
“No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content,” the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has ruled (via BBC News).
The World Wide Web Foundation, created by WWW inventor Tim Berners-Lee, has welcomed the ruling. “The message is clear: We can’t create a two-tier Internet – one for the haves, and one for the have-nots,” Programme Manager Renata Avila said. “We must connect everyone to the full potential of the open Web. We call on companies and the government of India to work with citizens and civil society to explore new approaches to connect everyone as active users, whether through free data allowances, public access schemes or other innovative approaches.”
While Zuckerberg has maintained throughout that Free Basics adheres to net neutrality rules – “Instead of recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim–falsely–the exact opposite,” he blustered back in December – a Facebook spokesperson claims that the company will work to ensure that its free internet initiative complies with net neutrality.
“Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform,” a Facebook spokeswoman said. “While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings.”
The Internet.org “free internet” initiative – now known as Free Basics – is under threat of closure by Indian authorities, but its founder, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, doesn’t get why India isn’t grateful for his efforts. The Time of India reports that the country’s telecoms regulator is putting pressure on Reliance to cease carrying Internet.org over fears that its “walled garden” structure – allowing only sites that are paid-up partners with Free Basics to be accessible to users – is anathema to the idea of a free and open internet.
Zuckerberg has now responded to the controversy, insisting that his vision for Internet.org is purely philanthropic, and lamenting the fact that no one seems to see that but him. “Who could possibly be against this?” he begs in a Times of India op-ed. “Surprisingly, over the last year, there’s been a big debate about this in India.”
“Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims–even if that means leaving behind a billion people,” Zuckerberg says. “Instead of recognizing the fact that Free Basics is opening up the whole internet, they continue to claim–falsely–that this will make the internet more like a walled garden.”
“Instead of welcoming Free Basics as an open platform that will partner with any telco, and allows any developer to offer services to people for free, they claim–falsely–that this will give people less choice,” he argues. “Instead of recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim–falsely–the exact opposite.”
Many, including figures within the India government, disagree with Zuckerberg’s appraisal, with Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik arguing in a letter to Indian regulators: “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.”
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web infrastructure for the internet, is vehemently opposed to Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org plan to bring a limited internet to poor countries, an initiative that has long been criticised for violating net neutrality and branded an internet “ghetto”.
“When it comes to compromising on net neutrality, I tend to say ‘just say no’,” Berners-Lee said, regarding Internet.org. “In the particular case of somebody who’s offering […] something which is branded internet, it’s not internet, then you just say no. No it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something […] [only] giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards.”
After getting so much bad press, Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, changed the name of Internet.org, which launched last year, to ‘Free Basics’, but the same problems remain. Users will only be given access to sites that Free Basics deems appropriate – likely those that sign up to financial agreements with the initiative – restricting free use of the internet, flagrantly flouting the rules of net neutrality. Free Basics is still operating in India, despite a walkout by a number of its publisher partners.