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Sorry Mark Zuckerberg, Your Free Lunch Offer Was Just Too Hard To Digest

13/02/2016 12:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gestures while delivering the keynote address at the f8 Facebook Developer Conference Wednesday, April 30, 2014, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Dear Mark,

Let's begin with the basics. We (well, most of us) love Facebook -- all the opportunities it provides for sharing and friendship, the amazing stories of courage that leave us inspired and full of hope for humanity. And of course the bit of narcissistic indulgence it affords us on the side. All at no cost. So, thank you.

However, your Free Basics, even in a free market economy, is a different matter.

The urban and the rural masses are very discerning. After a point, no muscle power, theatrics, sales talk, gimmickry or false promises will work.

I cannot help but hark back to a particular period of the colonial era to draw some parallels. The British who ruled India then ordered our farmers (largely in East Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal) to stop growing vegetables and fruits. They were asked to grow opium instead. So, opium grown on Indian soil, ordered by the British, was sold surreptitiously and forcibly by the British in China, for profits that went back to her Majesty's coffers. Even as Imperial China fumed and protested, Britain continued regardless, basing her argument on the very principles of economy that we operate in today. The rest, as you know, is history - China's rout in the Opium Wars, the sacrifice of Indian soldiers, the penalty of Hong Kong for a 100 years and other such obnoxious fall-outs.

Thankfully, the parallels end there. Today's India is different. Both the urban and the rural masses are very discerning. After a point, no muscle power, theatrics, sales talk, gimmickry or false promises will work. There may be aberrations in perceptions, choices and decisions. But order will be restored. Term after term, our election results stand testimony to this. Of course, we love it when political leaders demonstrate intimate bonhomie with global corporate honchos. The hugs, selfies, conversations over tea and photo opportunities make for pleasant living room viewing.

But it doesn't help to swing policy decisions.

There have been a few unsuspecting, gullible innocents who signed up for Free Basics or added the tri-colour gradient to their profile picture. Most would have because their friends did it or because Free Basics sounded so noble in its cause or because the tri-colour gradient on the DP looked so patriotic.

[I]n our efforts to bridge the divide, we cannot have a few 1000-pound guerillas having monopoly of the pipe or dictating the rules of the game.

Nevertheless, the collective consciousness of an aware India was able to detect some, if not all of the billion shades of red between 'Free' and 'Neutral'. The multi-million dollar 'Save Free Basics' campaign by Facebook did not sway the larger masses. Everyone understands that there are no free lunches and the "free" of Free Basics was somewhat hard to digest. A profit-making corporation pontificating over a social cause for another country kind of ups the ante, you see? People saw it and came together in a brilliant show of collaboration to evangelize the cause of net neutrality. It was called 'Save the Internet' campaign. Volunteers (bless their creative genius) uploaded skits, videos, songs and all kinds of information to help people like me understand that Free Basics was fraught with negatives. Soon, the movement became a juggernaut, flattening all the glossies of Free Basics and Zero in its way.

So, on 8 February, 2016, the juggernaut of Indian democracy prevailed and we decided in favour of net neutrality.

We understand you are disappointed. After all, didn't we look a gift horse in the mouth? But you are determined to renew your efforts.

You should. But not the way you approached it this time.

We agree that the rural-urban divide should reduce and that the Internet is a great leveller. That the total mobile phone subscriber base in India is touching a billion is great news. That very little of rural India is connected to the Internet is not. But in our efforts to bridge the divide, we cannot have a few 1000-pound guerillas having monopoly of the pipe or dictating the rules of the game. We also cannot have a twisted version of the Robin Hood ideology wherein the already tired and taxed urban class will have to pay the price. That's what Free Basics will ultimately mean.

Divert the millions of Free Basics ad dollars to enroll key players in the Internet eco-system.

So you will need to play it differently next time. Our Make in India vision also needs to take along rural India. Make in India in rural India can work only with Digital India. So, you have a ready stage. Divert the millions of Free Basics ad dollars to enroll key players in the Internet eco-system. Work with the government to get India's big, profitable businesses to pledge support for Digital India. Tap into mandatory rules of CSR. "Corporate India stands for Rural India" should resonate. "Community Internet" for rural India will be a great idea to begin with. It will save costs and also act as a driver for civic participation. More players, reduced monopoly and a strong Public-Private Partnership, could cover a significant percentage of rural India with Internet in five years.

While that happens, I'm tempted to dwell on a bit of philosophy. Coming from the land of the Buddha, the influences can't but be strong. Let the internet be the artery carrying information, education, science and knowledge from various fields to every single household in rural India. Till that happens, maybe it is the way of nature to prolong the delay and spare our majority the other side of the internet - pornography, net addiction, self-obsession, cyber-related mental health issues, cyber crimes and cyber bullying.

Best wishes and better luck next time.

Azra

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