Why Americans Should Pay Attention to What Facebook Is Doing in India

Free Basics, Facebook's free, limited internet service is at the center of a fierce debate.

Jan 15 2016, 4:44pm

Photo: Getty Images

If you live in India, or happen to have visited in the past month, you probably noticed the seemingly-ubiquitous advertising for something called Free Basics. It's what you might call a full-court press: full-page ads in newspapers, billboards, and movie theater trailers. Also, if you were to log into Facebook, you'd be presented with an ad (and possibly if you were in the US, too).

The first thing to understand is that Free Basics is Facebook, and Facebook is Free Basics, and they're both basically Internet.org. Perhaps more accurately, if expressed in matryoshka dolls, Free Basics is inside Internet.org which is inside Facebook. First, Facebook launched the Internet.org initiative, which covers various projects aimed at spreading internet access to developing countries. One of the first projects was a free service that offers limited access to the internet, including ad-free Facebook and other sites. Then, in September, Facebook rebranded that service from Internet.org to Free Basics.

Free Basics is Facebook's effort to help the billion people of the world who don't have access to the internet take their first baby steps online. Or, cynically, it's Facebook's effort to suck the next billion people of the world who don't have access to the internet into Facebook. What sites are available varies by country, but every one of the 37 countries now enrolled in Free Basics offers Facebook.

Open internet advocates in India went positively up in arms. I'd wager that Mark Zuckerberg did not expect the backlash to be so decisive. "Who could possibly be against this?" he wrote in an editorial in the Times of India.

Well, lots of people, for a number of reasons. First, there is the Western imperialism angle. (Economist news editor Leo Mirani told me Free Basics includes "the sort of things that people in the West think that people in the poor world should have access to.") Most of the backlash, however, was centered not on the gall of a Silicon Valley company galavanting into India with its own prescription for what it sees as a problem, but rather on the implications for the open internet. Indians know that "some of the internet" is a poor approximation of the whole internet.

Furthermore, zero rating—making some parts of the internet free while other parts aren't—chips away at the nature of the open internet as we know it.

That's where T-Mobile comes in. The mobile carrier recently started offering a video service called Binge On, which allows anyone who doesn't opt out to stream video from Hulu, HBO NOW, Netflix, and others without having it count against data caps. Already, things are getting weird.

That's all to say, zero rating is a worldwide issue. It's also not going away. I am sure this won't be the last time we talk about it on Radio Motherboard.

The telecom regulatory authority in India banned Free Basics at the end of December and is now soliciting public feedback on the issue. It's expected to make a ruling by the end of the month, but even if that's not delayed, there will probably be appeals and debates for months. Listen on for a primer on the Free Basics fight in India and what it means for the internet everywhere.