Yes you. You, who excitedly changed your profile pic to support Digital India. You, who has very likely already “voiced your opinion on Free Basics” on Facebook. Yes, you.
So you are what the Internet calls a “Bhakt”? Well Sir, I am your nemesis, a liberal, or as you guys refer to us, “commie loving, muslim appeasing, pseudo secular, anti nationalist traitor, libtard”. Fine, I will take that without a whimper of protest because today I am not here to fight about right or left, hindu or muslim, saffron or green, Rajat Sharma or Rajdeep (I am not a fan of either), none of that. Today, we have to unite against a common enemy, Free Basics.
Yes, you have been told it’s gonna revolutionise India and bring Internet to the poor farmer in a remote part of Maharastra or the daily wage labourer in Kolar and we, the taxpayer, won’t even have to pay a penny for it. Sounds awesome, almost too good to be true. Because it is. But we will come to that later. First let’s understand the concept of….
Let’s imagine that your city has 8 lane roads, and if you have lived in Surat, it sure does. Yaay Modi. Each lane has a speed rating, 20kmph, 30,40,50, 60,80,100,150. You cannot exceed those speeds limits set for each lane. And now lets assume that the government decides to rent out these lanes to the highest bidder. Companies and retail outlets can now rent lanes to direct traffic to their stores. Anyone can rent a lane, be it Hindustan Lever, Maruti, Nike, Levis, Patanjali Ayurved, down to your local baniya and that one PCO that still refuses to give up and die. In theory anyone with money can rent out a lane.
So each lane would only drive you to those specific stores that have paid for that particular lane. Do you see where the problem is? Let’s say Nike rents out the 120 kmph lane, while a new sports brand like HRX can only manage to rent out the 30kmph lane. Do you think people will still go to a HRX store? Or say McDonalds rents out the 80kmph lane while your local burger joint, despite making far delicious burgers, can only afford to rent the 20 kmph lane. That burger joint won’t last the next quarter. Or say Big Bazaar rents out the 150 kmph lane. Do you think your local kirana store can match that?
I guess now you are thinking “yeah alright, a few business will go bust, so what? Is mein mere baap ka kya jaata hai?”. Well, jaata hai. With small, fledging businesses going bust, only the big players will dominate. That means less competition. And less competition means bad products and service. Just ask your dad of those times in 70s when you had to wait for 3 years to get a Bajaj Scooter because Bajaj Auto had a virtual monopoly owing to it coziness with the government.
So you see, you would like your roads to remain neutral. And so should your internet because…
Back in 2004, even before startups were cool in India and the only Bansals engineers knew of were Vinod Kumar Bansal of Bansal Classes, Kota and his overbearing brother whose name I can’t recall. At that time, Ebay acquired an Indian e-commerce company Baazee.com which subsequently became ebay.in. Three years later, Sachin and Binny Bansal founded Flipkart.com and the rest as you know is history. But what if Ebay could pay Internet Service Providers (BSNL,MTNL, Airtel, Vodafone) to provide free access to their website? Or worse, what if Ebay could pay ISPs to provide faster access to their website compared to regular sites? It is possible that Flipkart would have found it extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to compete with Ebay. Flipkart would have had to spend lot more money just to provide access instead of making investments in build the world class supply chain that they currently have. Who loses? You, the consumer. You would still be stuck with archaic Ebay to buy stuff online.
Now you may ask “But Free Basics is not throttling speeds for other sites. It is just providing some sites for free”. Sure. But two things. First, it is entirely upto Facebook to decide what sites should be available for free. And while right now, no one is throttling speeds, that may happen soon. And in case of USA, it already has. Facebook may not do it but your ISP sure as hell is dying to.
And now you might come back to me saying “Yes, that’s good for you because you can afford a broadband connection. But what about the poor farmer in Maharastra or that daily wage labourer in Kolar. You selfish, elitist, pseudo intellectual piece of shit.”
Well firstly, there is nothing ‘pseudo’ about my intellect. Secondly, yes those people may be benefitted and Facebook would like you to believe that Free Basics is meant for those very people. But is it? Here’s the Reliance Ad for Internet.org (as Free Basics was known only months ago before it drew flak from the Indian public):
Does anything in this ad seem directed to the poor farmer in Maharastra or the daily wage labourer in Kolar? Sure, there are some sites under Free Basics that will help those disadvantaged people but first the ISPs have to invest in expanding their networks to remote locations. And Free Basics isn’t doing that. Most of the users of Free Basics will be from urban areas, school and college kids who will save up some of their pocket money that they otherwise used to buy 3G packs. Not a huge public service now, is it?
But maybe you are still not entirely convinced. Maybe you are thinking “So what if some sites pay the ISPs to provide free access to consumers. Isn’t that just another user acquisition or marketing cost? Isn’t this like getting a prime location for your store on Indiranagar 100 ft road versus having your store on 6th Main of 100 ft road?”.
No and Yes. No it’s not another user acquisition cost because it is anti competitive by nature. This has nothing to do with the value of the product or service and everything to do with how deep the pockets of the company selling that product or service is. And yes, it is kind of like having your store at a prime location versus a shitty location. But then if that’s what it is, why cloak it in altruism and garb of providing free internet to the disadvantaged. And who does it help then? Definitely not the consumer. It helps the big company that can outspend it tiny competitor. It helps ISPs like Reliance who can then make more money off you and in effect decide market outcome – it doesn’t matter whether Flipkart or Amazon provides better service, the guy who wins is the one who can pay Reliance more. Anil bhai wins, you lose. Haha.
The Internet has been so good for commerce because it is a level playing field like no other. And Net Neutrality ensure that the field remain levelled.
Now you must be wondering, “if Free Basics is not the answer then what is? Will we not have a Digital India?”
Well, there is no reason to be pessimistic. Internet penetration in India is growing at 17% annually and we are expected to have 500m Internet users by 2017. And all of this growth is happening without any Free Basics or Internet.org. If we maintain a 17% growth, we will double the number of users every 4-5 years.
So to recap…
- Internet Neutrality is like “Road Neutrality”. You don’t want corporations to rent out lanes for their specific customers and slow lanes for you.
- Zero rating services like Free Basics are against Net Neutrality
- Net neutrality is good because you want a level playing field for all corporations: big or small.
- Free Basics will negligibly help the disadvantages rural poor because ISPs need to first extend their infrastructure to those areas for Internet to work.
- As it stands today, ISPs like Reliance seems to be targeting Free Basics at Urban customers and not rural ones.
- Internet penetration in India is already expanding rapidly at a rate of 17% without the need of Free Basics. We can and will have a Digital India with Net Neutrality
So if you love your country and don’t want it to be taken over by big business with selfish interest and protect the right of the small guy to compete in a level playing field, you MUST support Net Neutrality. Which means, you must oppose Free Basics.