Facebook's Free Basics Is 'Lethal' And 'Flawed', Say IIT, IIIT Faculty Members In Joint Statement

30/12/2015 8:57 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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As many as 60 faculty members of India's premier science institutions -- Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) -- have issued a joint statement slamming Facebook's Free Basics proposal that plans to allow people without Internet access to some services such as education and health care through mobile apps but restricts access to websites such as YouTube, Gmail, Google or Twitter.

Activists say Free Basics violates the basic principle of net neutrality -- that everyone should have unrestricted access to all of the Internet.

"The first obvious flaw in the proposal is that Facebook assumes control of defining what a ‘basic’ service is. They have in fact set up an interface for services to ‘submit’ themselves to Facebook for approval to be a ‘basic’ service. This means: what are the ‘basic’ digital services Indians will access using their own air waves will be decided by a private corporation, and that too one based on foreign soil. The sheer absurdity of this is too obvious to point out," the statement said.

Joint statement rejecting Facebook’s misleading and flawed ‘Free Basics’ proposal

Posted by Bhaskaran Raman on Monday, December 28, 2015

Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg has made an impassioned pitch to bring under the Free Basics fold one of the world's largest offline population. In a marketing blitz that included a write-up in a leading daily, ad campaigns and video messages, Zuckerberg argued that Free Basics will connect Indians who are off the grid and give them access to essential services.

"We believe that connectivity is a human right and that getting connectivity for the world is one of the fundamental challenges of our generation. When people are connected, we can accomplish some pretty amazing things. We can get closer to the people that we care about, we can get access to new jobs and opportunities and ideas. We can receive education and healthcare and communication and access to new services," Zuckerberg said.

"I hope you will join us in doing this," he said. Zuckerberg, in an opinion piece, compared Free Basics to a library which houses only a selection of books as well as to public healthcare and education.

However the sharply-worded statement takes apart Zuckerberg's theory.

"If Facebook gets to decide what costs how much, in effect Indians will be surrendering their digital freedom, and freedom in the digital economy, to Facebook. So this is not an issue of elite Indians able to pay for the Internet versus poor Indians, as Facebook is trying to portray. It is an issue of whether all Indians want to surrender their digital freedom to Facebook," it said.

"Facebook’s ‘free basics’ proposal is such a lethal combination, having several deep flaws, beneath the veil of altruism wrapped around it in TV and other media advertisements," the statement said.

At the beginning of 2015, when Facebook launched Internet.org in India along with Reliance Communications, it drew sharp criticism from Internet activists who said telecom companies should not discriminate among online traffic.

Critics have said Facebook plans to act as a gatekeeper for Free Basics, permitting some services, while rejecting others.

In a video message, Chris Daniels, Vice President, Product, at Internet.org at Facebook, tried to explain the program.

As we expand Free Basics to more people around the world, we want to make sure that everyone understands the facts about the program. You can watch the video below, or read more on our Myths & Facts page here: bit.ly/1RAZdkC

Posted by Chris Daniels on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

On November 19, he also put up 'Free Basics: Myths and Facts' -- some FAQs to assuage fears that Facebook was creating an "unfair internet access model". He also held a Reddit AMA to answer questions Indians might have on Free Basics.

Telecom regulator TRAI has already asked Reliance Communications, Facebook's Free Basics partner in India, to suspend the services temporarily. It has also sought comments by December 30 on a consultation paper on allowing service providers to charge different pricing for data usage on websites, applications and platforms.

The academics will submit the petition to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on Wednesday.

Krithi Ramamritham, Professor, Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay told The Hindu that "this doesn’t, in anyway, represent the position of our institutions. I’ve been part of the earlier Net Neutrality debate and, as a group, we felt that our voice needs to be heard by TRAI.”

Here's the full statement.

Joint statement rejecting Facebook’s misleading and flawed ‘Free Basics’ proposal

Allowing a private entity

to define for Indian Internet users what is ‘basic’,

to control what content costs how much, and

to have access to the personal content created and used by millions of Indians

is a lethal combination which will lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their own public utility, the Internet. Facebook’s ‘free basics’ proposal is such a lethal combination, having several deep flaws, beneath the veil of altruism wrapped around it in TV and other media advertisements, as detailed below.

Flaw 1: Facebook defines what is ‘basic’.

The first obvious flaw in the proposal is that Facebook assumes control of defining what a ‘basic’ service is. They have in fact set up an interface for services to ‘submit’ themselves to Facebook for approval to be a ‘basic’ service. This means: what are the ‘basic’ digital services Indians will access using their own air waves will be decided by a private corporation, and that too one based on foreign soil. The sheer absurdity of this is too obvious to point out.

To draw an analogy, suppose a chocolate company wishes to provide ‘free basic food’ for all Indians, but retains control of what constitutes ‘basic’ food -- this would clearly be absurd. Further, if the same company defines its own brand of ‘toffee’ as a ‘basic’ food, it would be doubly absurd and its motives highly questionable. While the Internet is not as essential as food, that the Internet is a public utility touching the lives of rich and poor alike cannot be denied. What Facebook is proposing to do with this public utility is no different from the hypothetical chocolate company. In fact, it has defined itself to be the first ‘basic’ service, as evident from Reliance’s ads on Free Facebook. Now, it will require quite a stretch of imagination to classify Facebook as ‘basic’. This is why Facebook’s own ad script writers have prompted Mr. Zuckerberg to instead make emotional appeals of education and healthcare for the poor Indian masses; these appeals are misleading, to say the least.

Flaw 2: Facebook will have access to all your apps’ contents.

The second major flaw in the model, is that Facebook would be able to decrypt the contents of the ‘basic’ apps on its servers. This flaw is not visible to the lay person as it’s a technical detail, but it has deep and disturbing implications. Since Facebook can access un-encrypted contents of users’ ‘basic’ services, either we get to consider health apps to be not basic, or risk revealing health records of all Indians to Facebook. Either we get to consider our banking apps to be not ‘basic’, or risk exposing the financial information of all Indians to Facebook. And so on. This is mind boggling even under normal circumstances, and even more so considering the recent internal and international snooping activities by the NSA in the US.

Flaw 3: It’s not free.

The third flaw is that the term ‘free’ in ‘free basics’ is a marketing gimmick. If you see an ad which says ‘buy a bottle of hair oil, get a comb free’, you know that the cost of the comb is added somewhere. If something comes for free, its cost has to appear somewhere else. Telecom operators will have to recover the cost of ‘free basic’ apps from the non-free services (otherwise, why not make everything free?). So effectively, whatever Facebook does not consider ‘basic’ will cost more.

If Facebook gets to decide what costs how much, in effect Indians will be surrendering their digital freedom, and freedom in the digital economy, to Facebook. So this is not an issue of elite Indians able to pay for the Internet versus poor Indians, as Facebook is trying to portray. It is an issue of whether all Indians want to surrender their digital freedom to Facebook.

That the ‘Free Basics’ proposal is flawed as above is alarming but not surprising, for it violates one of the core architectural principles of Internet design: net neutrality. Compromising net neutrality, an important design principle of the Internet, would invariably lead to deep consequences on people’s freedom to access and use information. We therefore urge that the TRAI should support net neutrality in its strongest form, and thoroughly reject Facebook’s ‘free basics’ proposal.

Signed by:

Krithi Ramamritham, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Bhaskaran Raman, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Siddhartha Chaudhuri, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Ashwin Gumaste, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Kameswari Chebrolu, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Uday Khedker, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Madhu N. Belur, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Mukul Chandorkar, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Amitabha Bagchi, Associate Professor, CS&E, IIT Delhi

Vinay Ribeiro, Associate Professor, CS&E, IIT Delhi

Niloy Ganguly, Professor, CS&E, IIT Kharagpur

Animesh Kumar, Assistant Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Animesh Mukherjee, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Kharagpur

Subhashis Banerjee, Professor, CSE, IIT Delhi

Shivaram Kalyanakrishnan, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Saswat Chakrabarti, Professor, GSSST, IIT Kharagpur

H.Narayanan, Professor, EE, I.I.T Bombay

Vinayak Naik, Associate Professor, CSE, IIIT-Delhi

Aurobinda Routray, Professor, EE, IIT Kharagpur

Naveen Garg, Professor, IIT Delhi

Amarjeet Singh, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIIT-Delhi

Purushottam Kulkarni, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Supratik Chakraborty, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Kavi Arya, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

S. Akshay, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Jyoti Sinha, Visiting Faculty, Robotics, IIIT Delhi

Joydeep Chandra, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Patna

Parag Chaudhuri, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Rajiv Raman, Assistant Professor, IIIT-Delhi

Mayank Vatsa, Associate Professor, IIIT-Delhi

Anirban Mukherjee, Associate Professor, EE, IIT Kharagpur

Pushpendra Singh, Associate Professor, IIIT-Delhi

Partha Pratim Das, Professor, CSE, IIT Kharagpur

Dheeraj Sanghi, Professor, IIIT Delhi

Karabi Biswas, Associate Professor, EE, IIT Kharagpur

Bikash Kumar Dey, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Mohammad Hashmi, Assistant Professor, ECE, IIIT Delhi

Venu Madhav Govindu, Assistant Professor, EE, IISc Bengaluru

Murali Krishna Ramanathan, Assistant Professor, CSA, IISc Bangalore

Sridhar Iyer, Professor, IIT Bombay

Sujay Deb, Assistant Professor, ECE, IIIT Delhi

Virendra Sule, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Om Damani, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

V Rajbabu, Assistant Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Hema Murthy, Professor, CSE, IIT Madras

Anupam Basu, Professor, CSE, IIT Kharagpur

Sriram Srinivasan, Adjunct Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

K.V.S. Hari, Professor, ECE, IISc, Bengaluru

Shalabh Gupta, Associate Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Suman Kumar Maji, Assistant Professor, IIT Patna

Udayan Ganguly, Associate Professor, IIT Bombay

Rahul Banerjee, Professor, CSE, BITS Pilani

R K. Shevgaonkar, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

S.C. Gupta, Visiting Faculty, CSE, IIT Delhi

Ashutosh Gupta, Reader, STCS, TIFR

V Krishna Nandivada, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Madras

Ashutosh Trivedi, Assistant Professor, IIT Bombay

Your name, Designation, Affiliation

(Inputs from PTI)

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