Like China’s Great Firewall, Facebook’s Free Basics Could Alter the Online Behaviour of Indians

Just as Chinese Internet users do not care about content outside the Great Firewall even after it’s unblocked, Free Basics users will likely continue to use the restricted bundle of services provided by Facebook and its partners even after they convert to paid, full Internet access.

Free Basics could foster certain types of Internet browsing habits. Credit: Adam Cohn

From surfing to downloading: Facebook’s Free Basics could  nudge users towards specific types of Internet browsing habits. Credit: Adam Cohn

India has been fervently debating Free Basics, a restricted Internet services bundle that is managed by Facebook and provided for free on Reliance Telecom’s mobile network.

Indian civil society and academia are enraged as Free Basics goes against the basic tenets of net neutrality. It takes away people’s right to choose what they want to access, exposes them to a very limited set of web content and apps decided by Facebook, and potentially threatens the privacy of their personal data.

Facebook on the contrary argues that something is better than nothing, and sees Free Basics as a magic bullet for connecting the uninitiated to the world’s information superhighway. Besides promoting it as a philanthropic endeavour, Facebook claims that customers enrolled onto Free Basics eventually upgrade to the full Internet when they see how wonderful it is to be connected to the Internet. According to Facebook’s data, 40% of its Free Basics users so far have done so, which is primarily the reason why Reliance Telecom is funding the free data in the first place.

Even if we were to believe Facebook that people would migrate to the (paid) open access Internet, we believe Free Basics, in its current form, is a poor way of offering Internet access to India’s unconnected billion, with undesirable consequences.

Habits determine Internet use

We all know that the Internet is a massive place, where billions of documents organised, as groups of webpages, connect to each other by hyperlinks. It is no surprise then that most people access a very tiny corner of the Internet. As lots of research on media use has shown, this corner is generally limited to a handful of websites or applications that they regularly access. And for most of us, our social contexts, media availability and habits determine what our repertoire of regularly accessed stuff is.

For instance, people in the United States, India and many countries use Google for search, but people in Russia prefer Yandex and people in Korea prefer Naver. This is because people in Russia and Korea were habituated to use Yandex and Naver long before Google entered those markets. It does not matter whether Google’s results are any better, just as the quality of Bing search does not matter to most Google users.

For mobile instant messaging, India uses Whatsapp and China uses WeChat. WeChat has tried very hard to get Indians to use their product with only limited success. The reason: Indians were already too entrenched in Whatsapp when WeChat started trying. Similarly, as of today, WhatsApp isn’t blocked in China  but the Chinese don’t care about it and largely use WeChat alone. The point we are trying to drive home is that for a large section of Indian users, initiated to the Internet through Free Basics, its limited content bundle will determine what corner of the Internet they would belong to. Even if they migrate to a (paid) open access connection, they may continue to be disproportionately loyal to the services provided by Free Basics.

Walled gardens have lasting influence

Consider China’s Great Firewall (GFW). By blocking access for Internet users in China to a large number of foreign sites, the GFW is perhaps the most comprehensive “walled garden” that has ever existed on the Internet. However, research (including a widely discussed study on how GFW impacts Internet user behaviour in China, conducted by one of the authors of this article) has shown that after years of living within this walled garden, most Chinese Internet users are unlikely to access foreign content even when it becomes available.  They are completely habituated to the massive but limited suite of websites and applications available to them within the GFW.

According to a study published in the American Economic Review a few years ago,  the Chinese stopped using Wikipedia in its early days when it was intermittently blocked by the GFW. They instead turned to “Baike”, a local Wikipedia owned by Baidu (available within the GFW). Even though Wikipedia has remained unblocked in China since 2008, users in Mainland China continue to show an overwhelming preference for “Baike”, and the Chinese Language Wikipedia is largely edited by people in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the globally dispersed Chinese diaspora. Baike, incidentally, has grown to become the largest crowd-sourced encyclopedia in the world, bigger than even the English Wikipedia. In essence, The GFW – a walled garden, analogous to Free Basics – has effectively led to fragmenting a significant corpus of the world’s knowledge.

Getting initiated to the Internet through a service such as Free Basics would alter people’s Internet use in the medium to long term. And this alteration would be in the direction of commercial interests of the stakeholders behind Free Basics. Although any developer is free to join Free Basics, the platform currently only has about 800 partners vetted by Facebook, which indeed is a minuscule fraction of what the Internet has on offer. Further, this effect won’t be limited to the users of Free Basics alone. Network effects drive the usage of communication technologies, that is, most people show an overwhelming preference for services or content that the majority is already using. In the long term, these network effects would appear even more fortuitous for services that are part of the Free Basics bundle.  

Facebook’s current data on Free Basics usage is opaque

Facebook’s claim that in the past, 40% of Free Basics users have converted to (paid) open access Internet raises further questions. We don’t know how many of these 40% users were first time Internet users, and how many were users with lapsed Internet data packs. We know that a large number of users at lower economic strata in India buy mobile packs by megabytes (MB) or access days, rather than for an entire month/or gigabytes of mobile data. If a user’s Internet pack of 20 MB for three days (which may cost 10 rupees) gets exhausted, she would automatically be switched to Free Basics version of Internet on Reliance Telecom’s network. This user, having saved some money from her income later, might decide to buy a small Internet pack of 5 or 10 rupees again – but this doesn’t really prove that Free Basics initiated  her to (paid) open access Internet.

As per Facebook’s data, 40% of Free Basics Users upgraded to the paid Internet,  and 55% churned (neither continued using Free Basics nor upgraded ). This means only 5% users continued with Free Basics. In reality, these 5% users might be true users, beneficiaries of Free Basics, who don’t have the means to buy connectivity or any Internet pack, and have now decided not to even consider paid open access Internet at all.

We can get definitive answers to these questions only by looking at customer level data, which currently Facebook and Reliance have exclusive access to. With the aggregated data that Facebook has released to the public, one can only speculate about individual user behaviour. Anonymised user level data from such large field experiments by telecom and technology companies could prove immensely useful for policy makers.

Internet access in this day and age is perhaps a person’s basic need. One third of the world’s population is connected, and we wouldn’t be exaggerating if we said that several hundred millions among them live a large part of their lives online. There is no disagreement that Indians’ Internet adoption rate is slow and there is an urgent need to connect the country’s 1 billion unconnected people. Less than one in five Indians have Internet access, and India’s Internet penetration rates, are significantly behind Iran (28%) and are less than half of Mexico (41%) and China (46%). In the developed world, 9 out of 10 people have Internet access. This is the situation 20 years after India first gained access to the Internet in 1995.

Indians need to gain Internet connectivity and there has to be an exogenous push. It’s time the Internet was considered a public good, and some degree of basic access (without any content biases) provided through public provisions, perhaps linked to Aadhar, as suggested in this blog post by Nandan Nilekani, or some other way. After all public broadcasting enabled India and most of the developing world to watch TV and radio. So why shouldn’t the government directly intervene for enabling the Internet to reach a larger segment of it’s people? Even market driven economies such as the US are considering public funded municipal solutions for Internet access in many cities. Private players (including Facebook) may well be part of such solutions.

Both authors contributed equally to this article and the names are given in alphabetical order of last name.  Himanshu Gupta (twitter, blog) is a digital marketing professional who previously headed India Marketing & Strategy role for Tencent’s WeChat between the years 2013-15. Harsh Taneja (twitter, blog) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism whose researches audience behavior in emergent media environments.