How to deal with Facebook’s Free Basics

January 28, 2016, 5:40 AM IST in ET Commentary | Edit Page, India | ET

By Samir Saran & Arun Mohan Sukumar

Original link is here

In his monograph, The History of Computing in India (1955-2010), Indian Institute of Science professor V Rajaraman notes the work of the Dandekar Committee on Automation set up by the government in 1969 to assess whether computers would put Indians out of jobs. These were the heady days of socialism in India, and our computing sector was dominated then by one global giant: International Business Machines (IBM).

IBM had a difficult relationship with the Indian government right from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. It was battling a hostile regulatory environment with capital controls and local manufacturing requirements. But the straw that broke the camel’s back — leading to IBM quitting India for decades — was the Dandekar Committee report.

Egged on by vocal labour unions, the committee recommended sweeping restrictions on the “use of computers in banks, government departments, private companies and insurance organisations”. Parliament was convinced that the introduction of computers would “increase efficiency”, but opted against the “social cost of computerisation”.

Today, we are in the middle of a noisy debate on Free Basics, a platform devised by Facebook for free “access to useful services on mobile phones in markets where internet access may be less affordable”. The debate has been characterised by extreme opinions. Some have argued for a complete ban of the initiative, pointing out that Free Basics will be a walled garden that conditions access to information for millions of Indians. Those across the aisle view this as an ‘elite’ argument, and see Free Basics as a tool to provide affordable access to first-time users, who can then choose to go beyond the initiative’s services.

2016 is not 1969, and Facebook is not IBM. But the public policy questions around Free Basics — affordable access, consumer choice, free speech — will determine India’s internet landscape for years to come. Here are some markers for India’s regulators to evaluate this debate.

Hang Around with the Cable

Consider a ‘must-carry, must-provide’ rule: The ‘must-carry’ rule, present in broadcasting rule books in India and the US, imposes an obligation on cable TV networks to carry public or local broadcasters. Its corollary, the ‘must-provide’ rule, requires channels to provide their content to all networks without discrimination. Were the ‘must-carry, must-provide’ rule be transposed on to the Free Basics context, it would require Facebook to carry applications without discrimination on its platform.

Conversely, internet applications would be platform-agnostic, providing the same content to Free Basics as they do to other such initiatives. The rule would provide a level playing field for emerging startups and local (language) content providers, who would have the same opportunity to feature on Free Basics as Facebook’s home-grown applications. Qualitative standards can be enforced by the zero-rating platform, but evaluated by the regulator.

Regulatory commitment to free speech: Zero-rated plans like Free Basics can have varying effects on free speech and access to information. Do Indian regulators have the policy tools to correctly evaluate the effects?

Last year, a UN high-level meeting to review the World Summit on Information Society goals concluded that the free flow of information can take place through nine policy interventions, including “open access to data”, “fostering of competition”, “creation of transparent, predictable, independent and non-discriminatory regulatory and legal systems”, “efficient allocation of spectrum” and “infrastructure-sharing models”.

Rather than second-guessing the impact of Free Basics on free speech, the government should put in place regulatory regimes that make this assessment more accurate. These nine areas make for a good start.

Skip the development Kool-Aid: Whatever Free Basics may claim to offer, it is first and foremost an initiative advanced by a for-profit corporation. Corporations should not define India’s development agenda, but their projects should refine it.

In the short term, regulators should assess Free Basics on three simple questions. One, has it limited or facilitated the entry of new data-farming platforms in the market? Two, does it discriminate between internet applications, especially local language content and emerging startups? And three, has it restricted or broadened consumers’ choice on eservices and applications?

In the long term, regulators should also see Free Basics as a test bed for data protection norms in India. If public services and payment portals were to be part of zero-rated platforms, what would happen to sensitive data of Indians stored in such applications? Free Basics is as much about the privacy of data as it is about net neutrality.

The Book’s Face Value

Assess through empirical evidence: Assessing empirical evidence of Free Basics’ impact on the market is not easy. But in the absence of precedent, there is little choice. Regulators could recommend that Facebook deploy Free Basics for a limited window — say, six months — in line with the ‘must-carry, must-provide’ rule. At the end of this ‘trial run’, the programme would automatically be rolled back, providing both regulators and researchers with valuable data to assess its impact on connectivity, consumer choice and competition.

The Free Basics debate is a classic sign of the digital economy teething. How we respond will determine its forecast for decades to come. It is also a choice between being a ‘ban’ economy to evolving to one that ‘regulates’.

Saran is vice-president, Observer Research Foundation, and Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative, ORF

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s