Today the Indian communication regulator announced that it would forbid the provision of differential pricing for data services on the basis of content.  This decision effectively bans Facebook’s Free Basics initiative which offers access to Facebook and a suite of other content providers for free.  The issue of Net Neutrality, Zero Rating, and Free Basics in India has risen to prominence in the last year with a hugely popular grass-roots campaign to encourage the regulator to block such initiatives.  Facebook responded by adapting many aspects of their offering to accommodate public push-back, including renaming to Free Basics, opening the platform to more content providers, and ensuring the program was open to all network operators.  But for many all that amounted to was putting lipstick on a pig.  The stakes of the debate grew higher as Facebook embarked on an expensive advertising campaign in support of Free Basics.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the issue personal by making a public appeal to Indians, asking “Who could possibly be against this?”  The answer to that became clear today.

Today’s decision is a victory for those opposed to “walled gardens” but it is something of a paradox that the Internet itself has become a “walled garden” between those who have affordable access and those who don’t.  If we are passionate about creating a level playing field on the Internet then we must be passionate about making the Internet affordable and accessible to all.  Among the many news articles lauding the decision taken by the Indian regulator, none were written by anyone without access. The disconnected are excluded from the discussion.

It is an uncomfortable truth that, in emerging economies, Facebook had already won the Internet well before and the FreeBasics campaign began.  Facebook became the de facto Internet for many people because it did the most profoundly useful thing the Internet can do, connect people.  Connecting people to each other in meaningful ways is the secret sauce of the Internet and, for the last few years, Facebook has been best of breed at doing that.  The 16 million people who connected to Facebook in Nigeria this month alone are evidence of this.  From family connections to political movements, Facebook has proven itself to be an extremely powerful platform for people to share knowledge, act collectively, air their frustrations, you name it.  Mark Zuckerberg has a real point when he asks who could possibly be against offering this for free.

And yet, this is not ok.

At the micro level, Facebook delivers exactly what people want, connection and community.  At the macro level where Facebook’s algorithms decide which articles and which ads to display to users, things are more complicated.  Having a private company that connects over a billion people making decisions about how and when to display information to users is clearly problematic and we currently have no idea how to deal with it.  And of course not just Facebook but every Internet company that has gone to scale from Google to Uber to Spotify and many others.  One of the few antidotes to this problem is consumer choice, the ability to select a different platform if only to be able to see compare algorithms across platforms.  Without consumer choice we have no idea whether the beautiful peaches growing in our garden are genetically-modified or not because we have nothing to compare them to.

Given the choice between GMO peaches and nothing at all, most people would eat the peach.  Indeed, it is morally questionable to argue that those who can’t afford Internet access should forgo free access to Facebook until affordable “neutral” access is available to them.  I believe the only way to resolve this problem is to make the Internet generically free for all users or at least low-bitrate access to the Internet.  This is the essence of what I advocate for in A Modest Proposal in which I argue that connecting all phones to the Internet by default would make good economic sense for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) thanks to the network effects they would enjoy from having millions more data users on the network.

Pre-paid users on mobile phone networks have always enjoyed being connected to the voice networks for free. MNOs don’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts but because it generates traffic, more people to call.  Also, a significant percentage of those users will keep an airtime balance which adds up to a lot of money held by the MNO.  A recent Forbes article identifying lessons from mobile money ventures in developing countries identifies the importance of offering the service for free as one of six key lessons.  It is hard to imagine that a free, always-on basic Internet for mobile phones would not lead to massive growth in data-rich services.  Low-bitrate data for everyone, why not?

Photo (Between Scylla and Charybdis) courtesy cea+


Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data

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  • Steve the idea of free low-bitrate Internet for all is excellent. But pre-paid users on mobile phone networks enjoy being connected to voice networks for free because it generates incoming traffic for the provider. And every incoming off-net call means interconnect revenue from the originating provider! It is very small, but even then some. How will free internet for all generate any revenue in addition to that? If not then why would providers spend extra on delivering that low-bitrate data? Mind you in most developing countries it would mean additional investments in back-haul.
    One possibility could be that competition forces the providers to do so. For that some provider will have to take the plunge first.
    The other possibility could be to make it obligatory by law? Not easy by any means.
    Like always – the devil lies in the details…

  • Hi Parvez. I make the case more clearly here There are many reasons why this would make sense for operators. If only a fraction of the connected-for-free data users maintain a cash balance that its a lot of money that the MNOs will hold. FB have already established that free basic data is great mechanism for onboarding new paying data users. Also, consider if everyone is a data user, an entire new advertising ecosystem emerges. I could go on.

  • Jeremy Lansman

    I read Facebook is shedding youth in favor of less persistent IM tools. 128 MB/s may just be fast enough.

  • Gareth McCumskey

    Just curious why you would bring GMO into this as if GMO is some pariah? (FYI: it isn’t and has yet to be conclusively shown as such)

  • Gareth McCumskey

    Just curious why you would bring GMO into this as if GMO is some pariah? (FYI: it isn’t and has yet to be conclusively shown as such)

  • My point was not about the merits of GMOs per se but rather the importance of consumer choice. However you feel about GMOs, it is reasonable for the consumer to expect to be informed about their purchase.

  • Instant messaging is the new ‘platform’. Whatsapp, wechat, et al. Same rules apply.

  • Laurent Elder

    Congrats Steve on having this blog post quoted in the Atlantic Monthly, although I’m not sure the author understood your broader point. I think you’re modest proposal has merit, as it essentially follows a freemium business model ( as does free basics actually…which is why I don’t understand what all the fuss is about…Wikipedia does the same and yet ( almost) nobody vilifies Wikipedia zero). The struggle is convincing mobile operators to buy into the data freemium model. Maybe we should experiment with the model 🙂

  • Thanks Laurent! Yes, in the sense that freemium is intended to increase the network effects of an app or service, yes this is analogous. It also relates to issues of effective vendor lock-in even when there is apparent competition.

  • Coenraad Loubser

    It’s the best analogy I’ve yet heard! The point is exactly that we don’t yet know if it’s good or bad… but the stakes are higher if it does turn out to be bad. It’s a question of how to anticipate the un-anticipatable.

  • In case you haven’t come across it, great Econtalk podcast with Nassim Taleb on this very issue

  • Gareth McCumskey

    Actually we know that GMO inherently is not bad for you. Just by being a GMO product doesn’t make it straight up bad.

  • Coenraad Loubser

    That’s a bit of a twisted statement. It’s like saying “we know changes are not bad for us”. GMO is “changes” – and those changes can be varied – some good, some bad. On a world scale, it will take decades or more to gather good data on which is which. The article linked by Steve, from the author of “antifragile” makes the point that humans intuitively take a precautionary approach: “Would you drink from a puddle of water from the floor?” … In natural systems, disasters are confined to geographic regions, isolated by oceans, mountains or deserts. In the world we are creating, there are precious few islands… one mistake could ruin everything. Is it worth the risk? Or should we stick to the precautionary approach?