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Facebook’s Free Basics in a pinch in India; Zuckerberg comes to rescue with op-ed

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MUMBAI: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is on a mission - digital equality in the world. His means to achieve it? Internet.org that has been rechristened as 'Free Basics' in India. What’s standing in his way? The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

The prolonged debate over net neutrality and whether Free Basic will be detrimental to it has not only led to the establishment of online communities such as savetheinternet and online celebrities like All India Bakchod (AIB) to release a three part series on the subject, but also caught the government body’s attention. TRAI has asked Facebook’s only partner in the project, Reliance Communications to cease all work on Free Basics till it takes a call on the fairness of operators placing prices on certain online content and services.

A move that only egged on Facebook further and that's when it came up with an extensive online campaign that asked users to sign a petition addressed to TRAI in support of Free Basics.

To further abate the growing skepticism over the service amongst Indian netizens, the social media giant also went offline with their advertising campaign. From full page advertisements in leading newspapers to billboards across the country’s metros, Facebook has made its presence felt and motive clear: it will leave no stones unturned to make Free Basics a reality.

The idea behind the campaign was to highlight the need for Free Basics in India, especially for the underprivileged.

“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,” a Facebook spokesperson tells Indiantelevision.com.

The campaign did gain ground and as per a survey commissioned by Facebook, overall, 86 per cent of respondents support Free Basics when presented with arguments for and against the service

conducted by David Binder Research in partnership with India's Hansa Research, the survey was sampled from 3000 people in India.

“At the heart of the results was awareness of the importance of the Internet in shaping India's future. A majority (65 per cent) of Indians agreed with the statement that, 'a connected India is a stronger India and connecting more people makes India stronger, more informed, and more competitive in the world' and more than half support the Digital India initiative,” the report states.

Nevertheless, questions were raised on whether Free Basics truly adheres to what the advertisement campaign claims --  internet for all.

In fact, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) received several complaints and petitions from netizens across the country stating that the advertisements were insensitive and only painted a one dimensional picture about rural India and its basic needs. Several argue that it is a very simplistic way to sell their product projecting Free Basics as some sort of a magic wand that waves away underprivileged India’s problems.

While TRAI still awaits an official response from Facebook over the credibility of their campaign, Zuckerberg’s op-ed in one of India’s leading daily clearly addresses the subject.

“More than 35 operators have launched Free Basics and 15 million people have come online. And half the people who use Free Basics to go online for the first time pay to access the full internet within 30 days. If we accept that everyone deserves access to the internet, then we must surely support free basic internet services. That’s why more than 30 countries have recognised Free Basics as a program consistent with net neutrality and good for consumers. Who could possibly be against this? Surprisingly, over the last year there’s been a big debate about this in India,” writes Zuckerberg,” adding, “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.”

One would argue that Zuckerberg is almost suggesting that India accepts Free Basics without any questions asked as it at least solves its problem of internet for all. The question of net neutrality is secondary to a developing country.

Citing an example of a farmer in India, Zuckerberg highlights the power of internet in connecting India. “A few months ago I learned about a farmer in Maharashtra called Ganesh. Last year Ganesh started using Free Basics. He found weather information to prepare for monsoon season. He looked up commodity prices to get better deals. Now Ganesh is investing in new crops and livestock.”

What is interesting to note here is that the example is in line with their campaign that speaks of rural India urging everyone to focus on immediate advantages of free internet for all.

Regarding its long term effect on net neutrality and Facebook’s advantage over other players in market, the CEO argues, “There is no advantage because the platform is open to all developers. Facebook does not receive or give any money to developers, telcos or anyone else for their participation in Free Basics, nor does Facebook generate any revenue from the version of Facebook within Free Basics as there are no ads in it. Our connectivity efforts have brought 15 million new people online and is consistent with net neutrality because the actual results from the program prove it serves as a bridge to the full internet for people, and is non-discriminatory.”

And while Zuckerberg rallies for Free Basics, even as he takes his paternity leave, a Reliance Mobiles’ TVC on ‘New Ways To Facebook’ has surfaced, adding an interesting angle to their partnership, and its impending impact on free competition in the market.

Promising free access to Facebook even on offline mode through their specially designed ‘Go To Facebook’ button, which is available exclusively to Reliance Mobile users, the mass media campaign might not go down well with the ‘save the internet’ crusaders.

Whether this will dent the progress Free Basics has had in convincing netizens in favour of it, or Facebook’s mission of Free Basics will be possible, one thing is for sure, it's certainly made the space more exciting and started many a conversations.

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