What are Free Basics and why did India block it?

Free Basics (under the umbrella of internet.org) is a service by Facebook to bring “essential services” of the internet to the unconnected people of the world for free. Doing so would improve their access to information on a variety of matters such as health, banking and of course, Facebook. Sites such as the BBC and Wikipedia were included. Facebook estimates that 50% of the people it connected this way upgraded to a paid plan within months.

The initiative was heavily publicised. The prime minister of India backed it on his social media accounts. The criticism came from the already-connected people of India: an internet that is curated by Facebook goes against the principle of net-neutrality. The protests were vociferous and it lead to a call for input by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), multiple rounds of consultation including an open-house that finally lead to the ruling (short version): internet service pricing that discriminated based on content in India was illegal. TRAI has made an exception for emergency services, with the caveat that the differential pricing for emergencies must be made known to TRAI within seven days.

What is the big deal with net-neutrality? Net-neutrality is the idea that all data on the internet should be treated equally i.e. It is not OK to prevent access to some sites or some types of content or to ask the user to pay extra for it. In the absence of net-neutrality, internet service providers (ISPs) would be able to control what the user can and can’t do or see on the internet. Net-neutrality also acts in favour of openness of the internet, preventing sites with a particular agenda from dominating information.

A well-known example is when American ISP Comcast throttled the bandwidth of its users who viewed videos on streaming-site Netflix and demanded Netflix to pay charges for the additional bandwidth usage. Netflix was forced to pay after its users found themselves practically unable to view videos.

The BBC may be benign, but some may prefer their news to come from another provider who sees the world in a different light from the BBC. For one media organisation to dominate the news made available to the poor of India for free would be quite an impressive coup for that outlet – one that we really do not want, given that all media have their own agenda and political leanings.

TRAI has ruled that all plans that differentiate on content is banned. The decision is significant as it considers the threat against net-neutrality to be a more serious one than that a majority of Indians not be connected at all.

TRAI’s ruling in its entirety is worth reading for its detail and its simple language.

Protecting our privacy on social media

You are concerned about how the use of online social media is eroding your privacy. What measures can you take? Here are a few possibilities. You can choose more than one.

  1. Stop using online social media: you will enjoy none of the benefits of social media and suffer none of the drawbacks.
  2. Use social media that is built for privacy. There exists at least one social network (Diaspora– I do not endorse it) that claims to have such aims. I once came across a write-up that said that users of Facebook would be willing to pay a sum to use it rather than have advertisements served to them. The problem is that a subscription will automatically limit the number of users to the network. The value of the network (to users and to the owners) increases in proportion to the number of users. Any entry barrier is value reducing. It works only if you have a close-knit group who are accepting of the desire to share things merely among themselves.
  3. Lock down your privacy controls. See these posts on network-specific information on Facebook and LinkedIn.
  4. Avoid putting any information that you do not want your grandmother to read – the golden rule of social media. You do not have control of what your connections do with information that you have uploaded. Even if a post is privacy restricted, your connections are free to quote you or take screenshots of your posts and post them elsewhere. Do not display your date of birth and other private information that may be used as identity verification measures at banks and such.
  5. Separate social media and other browsing. Log in to your social media using one browser. Do all other browsing using another browser. Set your browser to automatically clear the browser cache each time you close it. The social network will have slightly less knowledge about what you do and are interested in and is unlikely to serve you advertisements for that vacation that you are planning to Bali in a few weeks. Note that if you click on any links within the social network, it will know.
  6. Reconsider the use of phone apps. Look at all the permissions that the app requests when you install it on your phone and consider whether you can indeed tolerate them. It can be hard to not use some apps as most of our social media usage may be on the phone. At the same time, if we do not use the app on our phones, the network has no access to the information in our phones. I have been most concerned about this when using LinkedIn and have (for now) removed the app. Given how much I use it, removing the Facebook app is unthinkable for me at the moment.
  7. Stop posting new things; just use it for getting information about other people. This would put you in the creepy or inactive person category. Some people may not accept connections from people who have no activity, particularly on Facebook.

Also see my previous post: Why do we have so many privacy concerns regarding the internet?