If you offer only a certain group of websites for free, the argument goes, doesn’t that give an unfair advantage to those sites? You don’t have to actively block or throttle your competitors to destroy them. (Free Basics is billed as open, meaning anyone can add their website to the platform, but Facebook still sets the guidelines that dictate use.)
Then again, if you have a choice between a Facebook-curated mini-Internet and no Internet at all, isn’t something better than nothing? Maybe not. Some critics have drawn parallels between Facebook’s role as a gatekeeper and Britain’s colonization of India. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience caused by us Indians in not accepting something that is vehemently against free speech and the open internet … ” one Reddit user remarked last year in an AMA with Chris Daniels, a Facebook vice president working on Internet.org, the larger program that includes Free Basics. “We've been stupid with the East India Company. Never again brother, Never again!”
At stake in all this is access to critical stores of information and human knowledge for billions of people. Here’s how the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India summed up its decision this week:
These differential tariff offerings have positive as well as negative impact. On the one hand, it may appear to make overall Internet access more affordable by reducing costs of certain types of content and enabling people who have so far not been able to use Internet services and content, to access at least part of the Internet. This could have the benefit of expanding and accelerating Internet access, as first-time users of the free Internet could experience its benefits and start paying for full access.
On the other hand, differential tariffs result in classification of subscribers based on the content they want to access (those who want to access non-participating content will be charged at a higher rate than those who want to access participating content).
Which brings us to another part of why what’s happening in India is so fascinating. The concept of net neutrality is so snoozy-wonky because it’s so often described in theoretical terms.
It’s no mistake, then, that the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, treated net neutrality as an abstraction as he pushed for Free Basics last year. “Most of the folks who are pushing for net neutrality have access to the Internet already,” he said in a Q&A with college students in Delhi, according to local reports. “I see these petitions going around on net neutrality, and that’s great. We need to mobilize on the Internet to push for this stuff. But the people who are not on the Internet can’t sign an online petition pushing for increased access to the Internet.”
India’s decision this week demonstrates that the implications of net neutrality (or not) are playing out in the real world and have the potential to affect billions of people. As Tech Crunch put it late last year, Facebook sees itself as a stepping stone, but it’s still acting like a gatekeeper. “One side thinks it’s helping the disadvantaged,” John Constine wrote, “the other thinks that assistance is too dangerous to accept.”