#SaveTheInternet is wrong about #FreeBasics

Who doesn’t love the Internet? It is an amazing addition to our lives. The issue of Net Neutrality stirs up people, mostly those who have Internet access, because of the threat of change to the the way things are. The idea that you can’t just search for a term or randomly browse or watch some silly video without paying each time or wondering whether it’s worth the cost is alarming. So is the thought, for those who have cars, that every time you want to drive in to the city, you have to pay. However, there are good public policy reasons for congestion pricing.In it’s targeted opposition to Facebook and Free Basics, SaveTheInternet has misled the public.

This post, which has been republished widely, is a prime example of the muddled thinking & disinformative rhetoric flowing from their channels. Every sentence of the post is factually false, misleading or wrong headed. Let’s look at the arguments made in the article.

1. There are other successful models

This is one of the biggest deceptions from Save The Internet. There are other models, yes, but by no means successful. The links that are provided only lead to news releases that mention the launches, not how well they are doing. None of the alternatives are viable options, or else they would be in use. Click herehere & here for further explanations on the links.

for providing free Internet access to people, without giving a competitive advantage to Facebook.

The key point here is competition. Facebook’s competitors (depending on which industry segment we mean, that could be Google, Apple, Amazon, Flipkart, Ali Baba, Weibo, We Chat, Twitter, Mozilla, the Government of India,…) could also launch competing services. Similarly, other Telecom providers could launch competing services (like Aircel, mentioned above). Why is SaveTheInternet urging the telecom regulator to protect these huge, well-funded other competitors?

2. Facebook doesn’t pay for Free Basics, telecom operators do.

This is true in a limited fashion, but Facebook is expending money on creation and support of the app, and on promotion. That’s why you know about Facebook’s involvement.

Where do they make money from? From users who pay.

Set aside the inherent self-interest and self-evident nature of this statement, there is no evidence provided that supporting Free Basics has kept mobile data rates from coming down. Telecom operators are not naive fools, they will lower rates if it means more market share and larger profits. Perhaps telecom operators are re-investing their profits rather than paying dividends in order to subsidize this service.

By encouraging people to choose Free Basics, Facebook reduces the propensity to bring down data costs for paid Internet access.

There is no evidence of this, and it is baffling that Reliance or any other telecom operator around the world is keeping its rates high to support Free Basics while other operators lower them. If they did so, it stands to reason that they would lose their existing paying customers to the competition.

3. Free Basics isn’t about bringing people online.

This is not a fact and is backed up by no evidence.

It’s about keeping Facebook and its partners free, while everything else remains paid.

If Free Basics doesn’t lead to more people signing up for paid Internet access, what incentive is there for telecom operators to subsidize this so that Facebook benefits? Are telecom operators that stupid? Moreover, since Facebook does not show advertising in Free Basics, what other benefit does it derive from this? Merely getting more users doesn’t add to its profits unless they get on the full service.

Users who pay for Internet access can still access Free Basics for free, giving Facebook and its partners an advantage.

People who use the Free Basics version of sites will see a stripped down version. Is there any documented proof that any sizeable number of users do this?

Free Basics is a violation of Net Neutrality.

This may actually be true (it depends on which definition of Net Neutrality you use), but what does it have to do with “not bringing people online?” Some people reasonably believe that some violations of Net Neutrality may be beneficial.

4. Internet access is growing rapidly in India.

This may be the only true statement in the article.

We’ve added 100 million users in 2015.

A qualified true. It depends on the definition of “user”. As it stands, this probably refers to anyone who accessed the Internet at least once in a month and used some minimal amount of data.

Almost all the connections added in India the last 1 year are NOT because of Free Basics.

This is a false argument. Yes, those who can afford the Internet did sign up, but that doesn’t mean everybody will be able to. iPhone sales have also gone up in India, does that mean there is no need for less expensive and more limited smartphones?

5. Free Basics is not an open platform.

There is no such thing as an “open platform.” Also, any Web site may apply to join Free Basics, so by definition that is open(opportunity).

Facebook defines the technical guidelines for Free Basics, and reserves the right to change them.

SaveTheInternet is fond of citing Mozilla, here are Mozilla’s terms and conditions. The language and terms sound remarkably similar to those of Free Basics.

6. The only source of info on Facebook’s Free Basics is Facebook, and it misleads people.

The first part of the argument makes no sense. This is true of any service or product, initially the only source of information is the company providing it. Several journalists are part of SaveTheInternet, they could go and find out more, try to speak to Facebook employees, speak to actual users of the service, and dig up whatever dirt they believe Facebook is hiding. Until then, there are only baseless accusations.The opinion that Facebook misleads people can be debated. SaveTheInternet misleads people.

Facebook was criticised in Brazil for misleading advertising.

Yes, Facebook was criticized by the Attorney General of Brazil in what appears to be a conference or meeting, judging by the tweet in the link provided. However, criticism is opinion, not fact. I could not find any mention of any court case or industry body in Brazil ruling against Facebook. Does SaveTheInternet have more on this?

Their communication in India is misleading.

This is pure opinion. If Facebook is not violating laws or industry norms, this is no different from any other marketer (yes, Facebook could set itself a higher standard, but a service doesn’t deserve to be banned because of this).

People find the “Free” part of Free Basics advertising from Facebook (or FreeNet free Internet) from Reliance misleading.

Click here for explanation.

7. Facebook gets access to all the usage data and usage patterns of all the sites on Free Basics.

This is true and yet Facebook has said that it will not store or use this data. Save The Internet makes it sound as if FB will now know everything about what Indians do online because of Free Basics. This is a crazy argument given that 135 million and counting Indians have Facebook accounts where many post all kinds of personal details, and many Web sites, including nearly all that claim to be against Free Basics, integrate Facebook in one way or another (think of the ubiquitous “Like” buttons) that compromises privacy.

No website which wants to compete with Facebook will partner with them because it will have to give them user data.

Compete with Facebook in what way? As a social network? As a content distribution platform? As an advertising platform (although Facebook says it does not show advertisements on Free Basics)? Can Save The Internet provide the source for the assertion that participants “will have to give them [Facebook] user data?”

Facebook gives data to the NSA and this is a security issue for India.

That may be true but what does it have to do with Free Basics? Is Save The Internet claiming that information critical to India’s national security will be transmitted by the users of Free Basics interacting with the limited set of apps that Save The Internet claims are available?

8. Research has shown that people prefer to use the open web for a shorter duration over a limited set of sites for a longer duration.

Save The Internet is being completely misleading here. “Research has shown” is usually indicative of a published study that has been peer reviewed and scrutinized. The research here is based on discussions with a group of 18 individuals. One simply cannot draw any conclusions with a sample size that small.

I am not taking issue with the researcher, the research paper, or its findings, but rather how it is being used by Save The Internet. I do not fault the author for this misuse of her Masters thesis. However, it is apalling that a think tank and Save The Internet are suggesting that the government make policy based on a non-random, self-admittedly unscientific sample of less than 20 people. This is a farce.

9. Facebook says that Free Basics doesn’t have ads, but does not say that it will never have ads on Free Basics.

Go back up to point 1, where Save The Internet suggests several alternatives to Free Basics, some of which are ad supported. So does Save The Internet oppose advertising, or just Facebook’s advertising? Save The Internet is shooting itself in the foot here, because a very obvious solution for the regulator is to allow Free Basics as long as facebook does not contain ads.

10. Facebook has shown people as saying that they support Free Basics when they haven’t.

What is the basis for stating that they haven’t?

They may claim 3.2 million in support, but how many of those mails are legitimate?

Legitimate in what sense? As in coming from accounts belonging to actual users, or does Save The Internet want to question whether those users read the email before clicking on the Send button? Does Save The Internet want to answer the same question about its own email campaigns?

An argument against zero rating

The unmentioned elephant in the room is the 800 pound gorilla, the regulator. The Centre for Internet and Society lays out a nuanced case for permitting zero rated services but with a close regulatory watch. However, many people fear that permitting a service like Free Basics will create a slippery slope that will lead to something bad, and the regulator will not act in the interest of the public. That is actually a valid concern.

People who harbor such doubts might react by asking for a preemptive ban of the service. That is a cop-out. It’s a tougher challenge to reform government, but really, if you don’t trust the regulator, what reason is there to believe that it will ban the service in the first place?

 

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