After Facebook’s plans for Freebasics.org get thwarted in India, what follows? Frederick Noronha talks to prominent techies nationwide, including some who played a key role in the campaign for ‘Net neutrality’.
So the campaign against Facebook’s Free Basics turned successful. The will of the digital Davids felled the interests of the online networking giant Goliath from Menlo Park, California. But is this only the start of a long tussle, of conflicting interests and diverse understandings of what would be the best path forward?
Nikhil Pahwa — entrepreneur, publisher and founder of MediaNama, the mobile and digital news portal in New Delhi — who played a key role in the savetheinternet.in campaign, agrees that there’s a lot that needs to be addressed. Still.
Says he: “While we haven’t quite decided on what we’re going to do next, I think there is clear indication the battle for Net Neutrality isn’t over yet. We will have to be vigilant about violations of the TRAI’s order, and there are still two possible consultation processes pending: one over licensing of VoIP, and another that might involve telecom operators potentially throttling services.”
He stresses that they are “committed to core Internet freedom issues”, and want to ensure that access to the open web remains unrestricted. “To that end, we’re keen on addressing issues such as Internet shutdowns, censorship and privacy violations,” says Pahwa, sounding determined.In Bangalore, Kiran Jonnalagadda aka ‘Jace’, another key campaigner at savetheinternet.in, agrees that the battle is far from over. “We have a long way to go. For proper net neutrality, we need two more pieces of regulation: No throttling or fast lanes (speed-based discrimination). No blocking for commercial reasons, including accidentally,” agrees Jonnalagadda.
Outside of net neutrality, he sees the need to stand up for freedom of expression (no arbitrary blocking). Besides, there is also a need for “conscious measures to increase access, including deploying the USOF fund [which is meant to subsidise access where the market cannot easily reach]”. He argues: “We expect SaveTheInternet has many more years of effort ahead of it, and we hope everyone stays the course.”
Pahwa adds: “In terms of access: it’s important to bring the cost of access down, or even free. We hope to see free Internet services launched for getting people online, and for there to be a growth in bandwidth capacity and rollouts. We need to focus on growing bandwidth, not splitting it, and the potential launch of 4G services in India should end up lowering of the cost of 3G and 2G access for consumers as well.”
Access is an issue, as many concede, even while disagreeing with the Facebook solution. Pahwa goes on to suggest that other modes of improving Internet access are programs that have been run elsewhere by the Mozilla Foundation, where data is given for watching an advertisement, or some data is given free with each purchase of a handset.
Consultant Atanu Garai, who did his studies at Lausanne, points out that the Facebook debate has brought to focus the challenges in accessing the internet for millions. “When India is busy celebrating one billion mobile connections, it did not strike us that it took us more than five years to reach current 50% mobile connections from 35% in 2010 in rural areas. For so many millions, affordability remains a key challenge to access ‘real’ basics and access charge is not the only one. It’s time we devoted our energy debating and discussing how we can make it happen,” says he.
Harriet Vidyasagar of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative in Indian schools, the Konkani Wikipedia says: “It’s not just about having an appropriate gadget or Smartphone and some mobile coverage where you live BUT it is about having the education to be able to use the internet, the energy to power up your computer or devices, free and open educational resources in one’s own language and the freedom to learn and interact and connect with people and businesses from all over the world.”
Arun Mehta from New Delhi is a long-term techie known for his role on the India-GII tech list, and an IITian who has headed the Society for Telecommunication Empowerment way back then, besides campaign for grassroots technologies like community radio. He suggests: “Use USO (Universal Service Obligation) funds to provide free connectivity in remote areas. In rural areas Genovese [throw away] restrictions on wireless technologies. No longer is SACFA needed to prevent mutual interference, technology is now smart enough to do this on its own.” SACFA is the Standing Advisory Committee on Radio Frequency Allocation (SACFA). It job, when it was set up, was to guide the state on frequency allocation issues and the like.
Banibrata Dutta of Hewlett-Packard Bangalore, active in cyberspace in his personal capacity, stresses that ‘free access’ is not a panacea. Internet connectivity and other communication services for those without the means are crucial. While the urban poor have some access (barring the destitute), it’s the rural poor who need it the most. They need access to information which is blocked for them. The Internet is just one means of getting it, he suggests. What else is being done to give them the access to information THEY NEED, he asks.
A rural poor family comes to a city like Mumbai for medical treatment nor a family, he points out. They have to depend on word-of-mouth experiences. One can get bus and train connectivity information via a simply IVR (interactive voice recording on telephone). Such information could be facilitated by the internet, but not the internet alone, he suggests. “Extending access should indeed be everyone’s agenda, but to ensure that extended access serves a meaningful purpose, should be a higher priority,” Dutta says.
And technology isn’t apolitical. Techie-journalist Vicram Crishna says: “Among other things, yes, extending open access is something every thinking person should care about. Enabling rules and providing support, in a manner that goes beyond perpetuating the hegemony of a few charmed individuals, would certainly queer the pitch for future attempts by monopolists and oligopolists. But when the dust settles on thequestion of access, the ugly question of content itself will continue to blot the escutcheon. The forces of iniquity are neither owned nor fully controlled by our New Zamindari, but the ideology of the New Right has many aspects in common. One of them is the misuse of democracy by the demons of mob rule, many wearing the spiritual robes of misplaced faith, militated against reason, but there are others.”
Parminder Jeet Singh of IT for Change, an NGO long working in this space in Bangalore, feels access remains an important issue. He adds that the Facebook attempt, and the campaign over it, “actually did contribute to bringing this issue to the limelight.”
Singh argues that the currently regulatory order of course could not have dealt with the access question because it was a regulatory order. Since the TRAI consultation paper did not ask this question specifically, he feels “we should insist that it does”. IT for Change, a NGO, has itself put in counter proposals to differential pricing.
Ruchir Tewari, in the security, cloud, mobile and machine learning space in the San Francisco Bay Area, suggests: “Shine some light on infrastructure and internet start-ups in India. Challenge them as well as Government start-up program to create city by city, and nationwide innovation hub websites to focus and coordinate efforts for last mile connectivity in rural India. Target the smart 14 year olds in villages, connecting and challenging them to dream and build the future of the next 10 years. This is a crucial time, full of opportunities but large challenges that need young blood to take on. Thanks for thinking ahead.”
Kiritkumar Lathia, telecom management veteran, argues that all have a right to Net access as India moves to “Digital India” and in villages as panchayats come online. Ditto for e-education. Would this look like a mini ‘Free Basics’? Yes, but is provided by government or NGO/charity, he argues.
Srini Rama Krishnan, a director at the Bay area, reminds us that Internet penetration in India lacks depth and breadth. “Internet access isn’t available in large parts of rural India (depth), and where available even in urban India, there is a lack of choice and speeds (breadth),” he notes. Identity check bottlenecks block tourists and the urban poor migrant to get SIM cards easily,” he notes.
Was this a clear win? Not everyone is sure. Anupam Saraph, who has worked in the technology space in Goa, Pune and elsewhere notes that Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that this is not the end of the road for ‘Free Basics’. “This battle may have gone in favour of the free and open internet, but the war is far from over,” he says.
Patrice Reimens, a Dutch techie who has long been looking at the India space, calls this “a very old discussion, dating back from the early days of the Internet.”
If the Internet is for all practical purposes a public utility, who should ‘own’ it? Very early on, authorities and governments have decided to keep their hands of it and leave it to the private sector, both infrastructure and running it. In all, it looks it has worked out well (the alternative scenario, public/state, didn’t spell any good, to say the least), but some things, like Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ are a direct consequences of a privatised Internet, he argues.
India, Reimens argues, has given the right signal. It might ‘nudge’ other companies to come up with a less ‘selective’ offer, he contends. But there is another aspect: there is no such thing as a free lunch, so ‘free access’ is not a realistic approach either. And then everything is made worse by the heavy PR discourse of all parties concerned, which is as opaque as the Pravda of old.
Alternatives? The last word to Reimens: “As they say at Facebook ‘it’s complicated’.”