Facebook has sneakily--without any announcement-- launched its Internet.Org service across India, asking people to send an automated email to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), letting them know that you support 'Free basics'.
And, a lot of people, are actually signing it up reading the word 'free'.
So, if you sign up for it, this is the message that you are sending to TRAI:
"Free Basics provides free access to essential internet services like communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and more. It helps those who can't afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online. And it's open to all people, developers and mobile operators. With one billion Indian people not yet connected, shutting down Free Basics would hurt our country's most vulnerable people. I support Free Basics - and digital equality for India. Thank you."
However, what it doesn't tell you is that 'Free Basics' is the other name for Internet.Org. It is the same service that net neutrality activists have been fighting against for a year now.
Since its India launch this May, Internet.org had come in for criticism for being a “walled garden” for its limited number of partners and single service provider.
Several internet activists had signed a petition against Facebook's initiative saying that goes against net neutrality and that world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services if Internet.org is implemented.
"We are deeply concerned that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full Internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of Internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs. In its present conception, Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation," the activists had said in the petition.
Net neutrality activists have said that Facebook's Internet.Org or now 'Free Basics' is a threat to the open, free Internet we’re used to—one that doesn’t discriminate between highly capitalized success stories like Netflix and Google and scrappy new startups that hope to be the next Google or YouTube or Facebook.
The activists are now asking you to change the text of that Facebook message to this.
So if you're seeing a Facebook message asking for support for free basics, please replace their text with this https://t.co/mcOna2vv6F— Nikhil Pahwa (@nixxin) December 17, 2015
Independence is too important to sign it away to a corporation.
I trust governments more than i do companies.
Don't sign the #FB appeal— Harini Calamur (@calamur) December 17, 2015
I stand for #NetNeutrality. Facebook cannot fool me into sending mails to TRAI to "save" Free Basics. No. Never.— অগ্নিভ নিয়োগী (@Aagan86) December 17, 2015
In fact many also say that the petition is getting 'signed' without people actually doing it.
Incidentally, Facebook's fight may be different but the campaign form is the same as that was done by net neutrality activists. In April, activists had asked internet users to send emails to TRAI, from http://savetheinternet.in.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg says that the initiative is to help the poor and make internet accessible for all. However, what Zuckerberg isn't telling you is that--when the poor, who in theory can’t afford a net connection, come to the Facebook's 'Free Basics' service, they’re made to believe they’re on the internet while in reality they’re only on Facebook and a few hand-picked sites.
Nikhil Pahwa had responded to Zuckerberg’s editorial saying that 'zero services' amounts to economic racism—exploiting the poor in under-developed parts of the world to become your customers under the guise of some apparent charitable purpose. While offering them a shoddy, stunted version of the real thing.
In trying to convince people to sign up for Facebook's initiative, the company says that "Free Basics is in danger in India."
"A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic Internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all Internet services, even if that means 1 billion people can't afford to access any services."
Facebook's campaign comes almost a week after TRAI has issued a consultation paper on differential pricing for data services, where it has asked if telecom operators should be allowed to have different pricing for accessing different websites, applications and platforms. They are allowing comments only till 31 December.
No wonder Facebook is looking slightly desperate in their act.
Update: Facebook has responded to this story with this statement
"Hundreds of millions of people in India use the Internet every day and understand the benefits it can bring. This campaign gives people the opportunity to support digital equality in India. It lets people speak in support of the one billion people in India who remain unconnected, and lets them participate in the public debate that is being held by The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on differential pricing for data services. And it gives them the opportunity to support Free Basics, which is proven to bring more people online and accelerate full internet adoption."--Facebook spokesperson
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