Not Another Net-Neutrality Story

Facebook suffers a blow from regulators in India, proving that the fight for an open web is more than an abstraction.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appear at a town hall at Facebook's headquarters, in September 2015.  (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

The web may be lovely, dark, and deep, but most of us don’t actually venture very far into it.

Back in 2013, Nielsen reported Americans visited an average of 90 different domains per person each month. That’s a startlingly low number—equivalent to about three domains each day—and one that crept down over the years, even as people spend more and more time online overall. I suspect the average person visits even fewer domains today, as tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, and Google increasingly design interfaces—walled gardens of engagement and advertising—aimed at discouraging their users from visiting other sites.

That’s part of what’s so interesting about the recent decision by officials in India to block what’s called “zero-rating” or “sponsored data”—the practice of exempting certain kinds of Internet use from counting toward a person’s data plan. The move effectively bans a Facebook program called Free Basics, a suite of lightweight versions of popular sites—including, of course, Facebook—that don’t eat up data the way visiting other mobile sites does. The idea is to give people an affordable way to get online, but it has long been criticized by advocates for net neutrality as a way of giving an unfair advantage to certain websites.

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, 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.”

The decision also has profound business implications for Facebook. Its goal isn’t just to help 4.9 billion people around the world get reliable and affordable Internet service; Facebook wants Facebook to be a key portal through which two-thirds of the global population first experiences the Internet. That may sound like a cynical way of interpreting the ambitions and values of a project that Zuckerberg has said is a way of fulfilling people’s fundamental social and economic right to access the web. (“This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests—there aren’t even any ads in the version of Facebook in Free Basics,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Times of India late last year.) But it would also be foolish for Facebook not to consider the potential for growth as the global Internet-connected population swells. And Zuckerberg isn’t foolish.

There are implications for other countries, too. Part of Facebook’s strategy for global expansion just failed, or at least suffered a serious blow, in a key country. Here’s how Kevin Roose, a writer at Fusion, puts it: “If a group of activists could successfully reframe Free Basics as an insidious land grab, rather than an act of corporate largesse, and mobilize a country against it, what’s to stop them from resisting elsewhere?” And as Ingrid Burrington wrote for The Atlantic in December, various mobile carriers in the United States offer “free” video streaming as a way to attract customers—free, in that data use doesn’t count toward a person’s monthly allotment.

“It really seems too obviously out of line to be true,” Burrington wrote, “Mobile carriers are literally partnering with large media companies to subsidize data-devouring streaming services, while what might be considered the ‘open Internet’ remains a paid service.”

In a Facebook post on Monday, Zuckerberg wrote that he is “disappointed” but committed to keep working toward connectivity goals in India. In his earlier essay, for the Times of India, he was less restrained: “Who could possibly be against this?”