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IIT, IISc scientists dislike Facebook's Free Basics

December 30, 2015 09:48 IST

Net neutrality activists have alleged that Free Basics would discriminate access to a large number of Indians

Computer science teachers and scientists of leading Indian institutes have come out against Free Basics, asking the telecom regulator to reject Facebook’s plan in the interest of protecting citizens’ rights to use their own public utility, the Internet.

“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,” said a joint statement from the academic community, including professors from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in Mumbai, Kharagpur and Delhi and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is to decide on the merits of Free Basics in January. Till then it has asked for public responses on differential pricing for Internet services. Net neutrality activists have alleged that Free Basics would discriminate access to a large number of Indians.

Stating that the term ‘free’ in Free Basics was a marketing gimmick and the cost of access would  be borne by the users, the scientists from IITs and IISc cautioned that Facebook’s proposal had several deep flaws beneath a veil of altruism. “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,” they said.

The scientists have also questioned Facebook’s model stating that the social network can decrypt the content in the basic apps that could potentially be a security threat to the users. “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 (National Security Agency) in the US,” they said.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is betting on Free Basics to get the next billion users in India, has been lobbying with start-up executives and software industry body Nasscom.

Nasscom on Tuesday said it was still working on its response to the telecom regulator on differential pricing and net neutrality and would submit it before the December 30 deadline.

“As part of our policy submissions, we have detailed consultative sessions with different stakeholders and these discussions will help us to better understand different points of view and take into consideration any inputs that Facebook and Save the Internet and any other interested parties provide before we firm up our response to Trai,” Nasscom president R Chandrashekhar said in an email response.

Software rights activists have also questioned Facebook’s move in India.

“Facebook’s Free Basics is a disingenuous way of trying to solve a problem of access. The regulator should see through this attempt by Facebook and not allow any of these distortions of the market,” said Mishi Choudhary, legal director at Software Freedom Law Centre, and a campaigner of Save the Internet.

Earlier, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of wallet-turned-e-commerce firm Paytm, had called Facebook’s actions as similar to those of the “East India Company”.

Photograph: Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

Anita Babu in Bengaluru
Source: source image