Approximately a year ago, the term ‘Free Basics’ was much in vogue. Facebook’s much-touted Free Basics programme has run afoul of activists for a free and equal internet in India. When Facebook launched a petition addressed to the telecom regulator Trai and asked users to sign it to save its Free Basics programme, many unsuspecting subscribers signed on. Soon, however, the petition was met with howls of protests from net neutrality supporters decrying the move and who soon launched a counter-petition. Soon, the tech-driven start-up world in India had thrown its hat in the ring, too, with many coming out in support of net neutrality.

I will not be lying if I say that I was completely clueless as to what the hullabaloo was all about! I blamed my artistic brain for being unable to understand the nitty-gritties of this very technical news. But the inquisitive side of me wanted to know all that there was to know, all that I should be aware of in this context. As I began researching, I realized that most people have their own definitions of what ‘Free Basics’ is. So here I am, after almost a year, with some basics about Free Basics! As they say its never too late for anything, so I hope that this article helps clear misconceptions, queries, etc about Free Basics in India. Read on.

1. What is Free Basics?  
Internet.org was rechristened Free Basics in September, just ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Facebook’s headquarters at founder Mark Zuckerberg’s invitation. According to Facebook, it is an open platform that gives Indian developers the opportunity to make their services and websites available free of cost to those who cannot afford internet access. However, this free access is limited to partner websites and applications. It was launched two years ago globally in partnership with Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm.

2. What’s the problem, then? It sounds like a good initiative…
Yes, definitely. But the problem is that, contrary to what it claims, it doesn’t offer equal and unbiased access to all services. Facebook is partnering with ISPs to provide preferential and selective access to a set of app developers and services. This is the main criticism of those opposed to Free Basics; they argue that the internet should be free and equal for all users. This is also the cornerstone of net neutrality.

3. What’s net neutrality?
Net neutrality means access to free and unbiased internet for all. To put it in simple terms, anyone from anywhere around the world should be able to access or provide services and content on the internet without any discrimination.

4. Is Free Basics already available in India, too?
Facebook launched the initiative in India in February by partnering with Reliance Communications. RCom offers the Free Basics service under a ‘Freenet’ button on mobile phones. It started with free access to select 33 websites across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa. This was subsequently increased to 80 websites.

5. What’s the debate about? What is this ‘Save Free Basics’ petition going around on social media?
Since Facebook had already been at the receiving end from net neutrality supporters, especially the Save the Internet crusaders, it launched ‘Send a Mail to TRAI to Save Free Basics’ campaign asking users to send signed emails to the TRAI in support of the campaign. Facebook claims already 3.2 million of its 130 million users in India have sent the mail.

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6. What is the telecom regulator’s role in all this?
On Wednesday, the Times of India newspaper reported that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has asked Reliance Communications to suspend its Free Basics service.

A couple of weeks earlier, the TRAI had issued a consultation paper on differential pricing for data services, where it had asked if telecom operators should be allowed to have different pricing for accessing different websites, applications and platforms. TRAI said some service providers were offering differential data tariff with free or discounted tariffs to certain contents of certain websites, applications or platforms. TRAI has invited comments till December 31.

7. Is Free Basics different from zero-rating?
Zero-rating is a practice where internet service providers (ISPs) do not charge customers on data for select applications that they use. So conceptually, Free Basics operates on the zero-rating principle. 

8. Does any other telecom company offer a zero-rating platform?
Earlier, Airtel had offered a similar platform called Airtel Zero, using a concept called zero-rating. This is a practice where internet service providers (ISPs) do not charge customers on data for select applications that they use. Following a public outcry from those who want a free and equal internet, a number of firms, including Flipkart, pulled out of Airtel Zero. Similarly, Cleartrip and NDTV had also pulled out of internet.org

9. What difference has Free Basics brought about?
It is a more open platform. Any app developer can include their services on it. Also, they have changed the nature of the privacy settings, too. However, it is still selective in nature.

10. What’s Zuckerberg’s take on the Free Basics debate?
“With Free Basics, we are letting developers offer zero-rated services. This is powerful. We are not being a filter of any content going through that,” Zuckerberg had announced. He stands firm that zero-rating is not against net neutrality.

 

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