#SavetheInternet 2.0: What Facebook’s Free Basics Campaign Means for Public Policy

A protest against Facebook's Free Basics service, organized by the Free Software Movement of India. Credit: Swecha

A protest against Facebook’s Free Basics service, organized by the Free Software Movement of India. Credit: Swecha

While the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has once again come out with a consultation paper, this time on the issue of differential pricing on zero-rating services, Facebook has launched an aggressive campaign to muster support for Free Basics, the old wine in a new bottle. Using full page ads, hoardings across cities, multilingual SMS canvassing and its social network, Facebook has shown it can flex serious campaigning muscle to expand into what is its second largest market in the world after the United States.

While critiques of Free Basics have emphasised the need for net neutrality from the perspective of users, content creators and app developers, we need to remember network neutrality also matters for political participation and discourse creation around public policy.

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism ‘The medium is the message’ tells us that controlling the medium of communication (like print, radio or broadcast media) gives the owner unprecedented control over the messaging that goes into the media. The reason many countries have enacted laws against media concentration and cross-ownership is to prevent a hijacking of public discourse.

Facebook’s attempts to push for Free Basics is a similar attempt to control the medium (the Internet) so that it can also control the messaging (content) that people consume. By controlling what content gets shown, Facebook can ‘manufacture consent’, to use Noam Chomsky’s words, around issues of public policy. If that sounds like some alarmist conspiracy theory, let us consider some of Facebook’s actions from the recent past.

Last year, Facebook conducted a large scale study without informing or taking consent from the over 689,000 participants – Facebook users – where it altered the news feed users saw on their accounts to manipulate how users felt based on what they shared on their profiles. The study, which was later published as a peer-reviewed article, was designed to see if the public mood could be manipulated using algorithms that favoured positive or negative keywords. The uncomfortable conclusion: it can be done.

Earlier this year, a Quartz survey revealed that in Nigeria and Indonesia, around two-thirds of the respondents thought Facebook was the Internet. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said “People actually confuse Facebook and the internet in some places.” Such dominance of a medium like the internet can easily be translated into manipulating public opinion.

Just this month, Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg announced the creation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, an ostensibly charitable initiative that is not registered as a charitable non-profit but as a limited liability company with the stated goal of ‘participat[ing] in policy and advocacy to shape debates’. As the New York Times puts it, this will allow the company to ‘invest in companies, lobby for legislation and seek to influence public policy debates’. Given that Free Basics is also being branded as a charitable initiative, it is not a stretch to imagine that it will be used to influence public policy further.

But perhaps the greatest evidence of Facebook’s attempt at influencing policy discourse is the way it is pushing Free Basics itself. Employing a heavily political rhetoric in multilingual ads, the company is equating support of Free Basics with supporting a ‘united India’, and a ‘Digital India’. Its attempt to dovetail the service with the Prime Minister’s campaign for greater internet penetration is obvious. Further, Facebook’s use of its ‘platform power’ to push for support – going to the extent of ‘accidentally’ asking US users for support – should serve as a cautionary tale about how far it is willing to go to lobby for favourable outcomes.

The Digital India initiative has been (rightly) seen by many in Silicon Valley as an opportunity to work with the government to expand into a country which is already the third largest internet userbase in the world – even when over three quarters of its population is yet to go online. As a result, within the last year Prime Minister Modi has been courted by executives from the top Internet giants – the CEOs of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook – all of whom are hoping to get a piece of the lucrative pie as western markets become increasingly competitive or stagnate.

Zuckerberg’s gamble is bolder than the rest of the pack’s in the way it has co-opted the very language of the Digital India programme by alluding to ‘digital equality to one billion Indians’, access to healthcare, education and promises of job creation in the millions. Mark the similarity with the Digital India’s promise of ‘digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen’ and vision area 3 which promises ‘digitisation and connectivity’ of community health and education centres. TRAI’s response to this campaign will determine if the hyperbolic, albeit smart, move pays off for Zuckerberg.

India represents a large, mobile-first market for companies like Facebook and Airtel. As smartphones become ubiquitous, more Indians will access the Internet from mobile phones and hand held devices than from laptops and desktop computers. According to TRAI’s latest figures, as on 30 September this year, Airtel (which offers the Airtel Zero service) and Reliance (which will carry Free Basics) together account for almost 35 per cent of all mobile phone connections in India – that is a total of nearly 350 million subscriptions. While it is hard to determine how many of these subscriptions are on internet-capable smartphones, it is easy to see why zero-rating services would want to capture such a vast market. Allowing Free Basics and Airtel Zero to continue would mean allowing gatekeepers to decide the content that goes on the phones of millions of Indians – citizens who actively and passively participate in and shape public discourse in the country.

As the Internet becomes a strong tool for political mobilisation and opinion formation, public policy surrounding it must err on the side of the public benefit. This isn’t to say that expanding access to Internet isn’t a policy concern, but as several others have shown, there are net neutral ways of doing so. India’s policymakers need not fall for market-expansion masked as altruism to do so. The essence of both democracy and the Internet is the plurality of opinions and aspirations that they allow. The business of democracy is transacted over multiple spaces – both mainstream media and alternative – and to concentrate the ownership of a medium is to limit the possibilities of a diverse public discourse.

When stakeholders with a vested interest in public policy also control how and what content is consumed by millions of citizens who are also fellow stakeholders in the process, we open ourselves to targeted manipulation. This isn’t unheard of in mainstream media conglomerates, and must not surprise us if it happens with the Internet. That is why public policy in a democracy should aim to ensure that a medium as powerful as the Internet is protected from such risks.

Ajinkya Deshmukh is a free and open source software (FOSS) enthusiast at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal.