India just banned 'zero rated' Facebook. We should too

Free Basics, which provides an internet-lite experience to the developing world for free, has been banned from India.
Reuters

Free Basics, which provides an internet-lite experience to the developing world for free, has been banned from India.

OPINION: For once, Mark Zuckerberg has been told he can't have something.

This must be hard. The Facebook founder/chief executive has had pretty much everything go his way lately, up until a government decision in India last week.

What happened that could irk Zuckerberg? The country's telco regulator ruled that Facebook's "free basics" programme, where they offer select internet services (like Facebook) to the poor for free, was illegal.

This is fantastic. Let me explain.

READ MORE: India says no to "free" internet

I'm not some kind of miser who thinks India's poor should have to pay for their internet just like everybody else. Far from it. It's just that making some services free while making others cost ruins the internet.

You've probably heard of "net neutrality," but we can recap. Basically, what differentiates the internet from every other mass media format - television, radio, newspapers - is that it is a level playing field, with low barriers to entry.

Anyone can put something on the internet and compete with the big boys. You don't have to pay to access your audience, and they don't have to pay to access your content - other than a base connection fee.

 India just banned making Facebook data free. NZ should follow their lead.
Reuters

 India just banned making Facebook data free. NZ should follow their lead.

This model encourages innovation and discourages monopolies. It's why a once-small company like Netflix can take over the entertainment world in a few short years. It's why a search engine built by two students could compete with what Microsoft was offering. Ironically, it's why Facebook could destroy Myspace.

The inverse of net neutrality is the world of TV, where monopolies rule. Everything is tiered. Some channels with entrenched power and a lot of advertisers are delivered to all of us, free of charge. Other channels are bundled as part of a package certain people pay for. The playing field is anything but level.

The nightmare scenario net neutrality activists fear. 

For a long while, net neutrality activists thought a non-neutral internet would look a lot like cable. This image was used as a worst case scenario - the idea being that telcos would negotiate special "fast connections" with favoured providers, making the humdrum normal internet look slow in comparison. 

What has actually happened has been a bit more complicated. The biggest threats to net neutrality don't relate to speed - they relate to mobile data.

Here's where we get to Free Basics.

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The idea was simple: mobile data is prohibitively expensive for many in the developing world, and yet the connectivity it offers is clearly invaluable.

Facebook, along with a bunch of other big tech companies, offered to help. They would provide free internet connectivity, but with a catch. The "free" internet would only cover a small range of "basic" apps. You don't get the whole internet. You get what Facebook decides you should get. Anything else costs.

The pseudo-internet unsurprisingly skews heavily towards Facebook's own services. There are other apps - Accuweather, Bikroy - but the range is extremely limited. 

Free Basics is available in a number of countries, but India was likely the ultimate target. India has the second largest population in the world - that's a lot of potential new Facebook users.

But Facebook's approach was paternalistic and misguided. While there is huge poverty in India, smartphones and mobile data is actually relatively affordable, with 100mb costing less than a US dollar.

India also has a lot of experience with Westerners muscling their way in and attempting to run their economy. By allowing discriminatory access to western internet services, Free Basics was holding back India's own vibrant app economy. These echoes of colonialism were made explicit with an incredibly offensive tweet by Facebook investor Marc Andreessen, which prompted a backlash so large Mark Zuckerberg had to basically apologise for him.

A relatively misguided (now deleted) tweet from Facebook investor Marc Andreessen.

But what does this all have to do with little old NZ? Well, Facebook and Twitter have already negotiated differentiated access to Kiwis.

Just look at Spark's "socialiser" service, where prepay customers can pay just $9 for a whole gig of data - that can only be used on Facebook or Twitter. For a long while when they introduced this service, Facebook and Twitter data was actually free.

At first, this seems harmless. Much of most people's mobile data is used on Facebook or Twitter.

Yet it immediately disadvantages any new social networks. Do I really want to post that picture to Peach and use up my regular 500mb of data, or do I want to upload it Facebook and use my cheap 1GB of "social" data? 

Spark's socialiser is not alone. TelstraClear (before they became Vodafone) launched an "unmetered" service in NZ a few years back. In other countries certain providers give Netflix data away for free.

But many wrongs don't make a right. Tiered internet is not just immoral, it's bad for our economy. Without net neutrality a little small startup like TradeMe could not have matched the big boys. Xero couldn't have seriously competed with MYOB this fast.

It's a bit small fry right now, but this is a principle we are talking about. If telcos get away with nibbling away at net neutrality they will get greedier and greedier. After all, their only allegiance is to their shareholders.

Our telecommunications regulators did a world of good by forcing Spark (then named Telecom) to unbundle their services. They should strongly consider stepping in here and showing Facebook that net neutrality is something Kiwis value too.

 - Stuff

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