Why India Should Reject Facebook’s “Free Basics”

Dear People of India,

I greet you on behalf of everyone who loves individual rights and freedoms in the United States of America. I have read that many citizens in the Republic of India are skeptical of Free Basics, an essentially free Internet offered by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Free Basics promises to open up the wide world of the Internet to you and billions of people who could not otherwise afford it, by providing “a set of basic internet services for education, healthcare, jobs and communication that people can use without paying for data.” Developers sign up to be a part of Facebook’s Free Basics platform and then Facebook provides their content for free to individuals who have signed up for the service, so that from there they can “move onto explore the entire internet.”

However, many of your leading academics and pundits have criticized Free Basics and its constituent services, claiming Free Basics violates net neutrality by favoring certain websites and services over others. Professors from the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science have found three problems with Free Basics:

  1. Facebook will decide what is a “basic” service and whether or not to offer it on Free Basics.
  2. While other technology companies like Google and Apple have encrypted information on their devices so well no one, not even law enforcement agencies, can ever find other information on it, Facebook “would be able to decrypt the contents of the ‘basic’ services,” thus suggesting any data stored on it could be compromised
  3. While “Free Basics” may offer free services, its developers will have to increase the price of goods somewhere along the line if they are to stay in business—and why should Facebook decide the price of any service or good in India? 

To counter these claims, Mark Zuckerberg personally wrote an editorial in the Times of India and compared Free Basics to other free services one should expect from a civilized country, including libraries and hospitals. Because of the benefits communication and technology can bring to society, the Internet should be added to that list and available for free. For every 10 people connected to the Internet, Zuckerberg claims, 1 is lifted out of poverty and Free Basics promises to connect 1 billion people to the Internet, for free. What’s not to like?

And so I present to you 3 reasons why you should not support Free Basics and, if it does come to India after all, why you should not sign up.

  1. Mark Zuckerberg is not to be trusted. Americans know all too well the infamous backstory of Facebook, wherein Mark Zuckerberg was contracted to build a social network as a Harvard undergrad by the Winklevoss twins. As allegations go, Zuckerberg used both the money and the idea of the Winklevoss twins to build his own social network, now known as Facebook. While Zuckerberg has always denied their accusations and asserts that Facebook’s code is entirely different from what he built for the twins, Zuckerberg still may have settled with them in court (the details are a bit murky) for 1.2 million shares to get them to stop bugging him. So, as Zuckerberg promises he has nothing but the best intentions for India, remember the promises Zuckerberg made that their social network, “ConnectU,” was almost done and making great progress.
  1. Facebook in America is already used to trick people to give up personal data.  Normally, advertisers pay hefty fees to find out the movies, books, foods, TV shows and everything else that consumers like. Facebook users give away this information for free by listing all of their favorite movies and books on their Facebook profile, providing Facebook with billions of consumer preferences that they then sell to advertisers. Facebook is not like Google or Amazon who provide actual services like search engines, cheap products, or cloud computing. Facebook’s business model is based on users voluntarily divulging personal information, so why wouldn’t Zuckerberg try to enlist a billion new users by offering them free Internet?
  1. If you think Zuckerberg was condescending in his Times of India editorial, wait until he controls everything else you read on Free Basics. Zuckerberg accused critics of Free Basics of selfishly denying the poor and unconnected the blessings of the Internet, while there is “nothing” in it for Zuckerberg, who won’t even sell ads on the free service. Zuckerberg posed a number of rhetorical questions that implied opponents of Free Basics secretly hate the poor and don’t mind if they continue to suffer without the Internet, invoking the kind of liberal slander on conservatives for not supporting free health in the 2008 election. For reasons not to trust Zuckerberg or his altruistic pleas, see Reason #1. If Zuckerberg speaks like that in an op-ed piece, wait until he controls everything else you read!

For those brave professors who have voiced their concerns of Free Basics, I would urge you to read The Road to Serfdom by Frederick Hayek, a 20th c. Austrian economist who wrote of the many dangers inherent to socialism. Hayek’s frequent refrain is that whenever the government gives away something for free, whether it is roads or health care, individuals inevitably loses their freedom of choice; one cannot request a different pair of shoes than those freely provided by the government. It is a free gift, and as such it is practically forced upon the citizenry who should be grateful that they get anything at all. So, of course Free Basics will have at least some, if not all, and probably even more of the dangers identified by India’s leading academic and public figures. If one does not trust the overtures of Mark Zuckerberg, then Free Basics appears nothing more than a ploy to sign millions of more users onto Facebook and begin using their personal preferences and consumer data, which Facebook can decrypt, however it wants to. 

At its heart, any government that has either lost sight of, or never had at their core to begin with, the concept of individual rights and freedoms will try to spy on its citizens. China has their immense firewall, Iran has their own intranet to shut off their citizens from the rest of the World Wide Web, and, as the leaks of Edward Snowden reveal, America’s own NSA possesses immense power to spy on anyone and anywhere it wants. Accusations have already surfaced that Facebook’s offers to connect India’s massive population to the Internet is just a ruse for mass surveillance, so one should take seriously the potential implications of a billion new Facebook users whose engineers will “have access to the personal content created and used by millions of Indians.”

For all of these reasons, I beg you, people of the ancient state of India, to not support or sign up for Free Basics. We Americans had no idea what we were getting into when we first signed up for Facebook—it seemed like a great way to stay in touch with friends or share photos, but it has quickly taken over our lives and even we do not understand all of the consequences as a result of our folly, whenever we signed up for Facebook. You, though, still have a chance to be truly free, if you reject the services of Free Basics.

Signed,

Freedom-Loving and Unfortunate Facebook Users of America

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