If it’s FREE, then why is Facebook spending 100 crores over it?

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” was an adage that was popularised by economist Milton Friedman back in the 1960s. The core contention of the advice being that everything in life everything has a cost; be it upfront or hidden. But it is always there. Nothing is available for free.

Hence, when Facebook launched the Free Basics with much fanfare and excitement, presenting it as a do-goody social thingy, not everyone was able to swallow it. Not many, and not someone like me.

To be fair to Facebook, any corporate entity in the world exists only for one single purpose, namely, maximisation of shareholder’s value. This is the primary (and often, the only) reason why most company exists. Thus, if Facebook is trying to hook significant number of users that will join the cyberspace in the years to come, it is not something that we should hold against the company. After all, growing its numbers is the only way it can ensure its profitability in the days to come.

But sadly, that is not the way Free Basics is being promoted or pushed. By talking about the poor and the downtrodden, who can “at least, enjoy the limited and curtailed internet”, Facebook is sounding quite like those proselytising missionaries of yore, that would defend the harvesting of pagan souls, because at least they were better off now than before. By masking the whole program in the garb of philanthropy, Facebook has only put itself in the spot.

And then to make things worse, Facebook is now using its huge financial and marketing muscle to push things through. By some accounts, the “What’s on your mind?” company has earmarked some $20 million to promote (read educate) Free Basics in India. It is using all the mediums that are available for the battle, print, TV, digital, offline. Rather than having an open and fair discussions on finer aspects of net neutrality, Facebook is now seeming like those corrupt politicians who have been proven to be corrupt, but then try to correct their image by glitzy campaigns and doing some charity work.

freebasicsad1The reason that Mark Zuckerberg is going ballistic this time in India, is because of the manner in why Facebook had been splattered with a cake on its face, the last time round. In fact, it had been just some 6 odd months back when Free Basics in its earlier avatar as Internet.org faced immense resistance by the public at large, and thus was stalled by the Telecom Regulators. At that time, Facebook was taken aback by the power of the collective, by the sheer virality of things. So this time, it kind of came prepared, it repackaged the offering (giving it a kinder overtone), gave the offering an emotional spiel, had the creatives in place, and even Zuckerberg, who is on a paternity leave, is now writing blogs defending the offering.

Facebook has also wisened up to the way media works in India. So this time round, it is releasing full-page ads, TV spots and so on, thereby “buying influence” in the media circles. After all, a digital behemoth was a competition in the past, but an advertising behemoth is a customer. And we all know how the Indian philosophy on business goes, the customer is always right. Hence, Facebook is not only trying to convince the people at large but ensuring that its hands are bitten by the media beast. That’s where the $20 million comes in handy.

After all that chummy-chummy with Modi hosting a Townhall at Facebook HQ, and Zuckerberg talking about his temple trips to India, Facebook must have thought that it would be easier than before. But thanks to the overzealous campaign on Net Neutrality in the past (where some MPs had even raised the matter in the Parliament; in the very little that it functioned), people are quite sensitive and clued in on the matter.

Yet for all the claims of the success of the Internet activist, only some 282662 emails have been sent to TRAI for #SaveTheInternet (via http://www.savetheinternet.in/). So, if the Goliath isn’t winning the battle, why isn’t David either?

The fact is that there is no David here. The cause of the “Free Internet” (without the basics mind you) is not being promoted by academicians or thinkers. On the contrary, it is being led by the same set of people that have business or vested interests related to the matter. The likes of Nikhil Pahwa (of Medianama) or Mahesh Murthy, etc., are entrepreneurs that have made their money in the capitalistic manner; so to have them articulate on matters in terms of philosophic freedom and overall growth is quite hard to believe. And then you have the bunch of comedians from AIB, talking about saving the internet, so they can roast it to their benefits, I guess. In fact, when you look at the savetheinternet.in, there are no names out there. There is an ambiguous mention of there being some 50 activists, but we don’t know who they are or what they do. In fact, there is no clue to who is funding this anti-Facebook movement. Google, Al Qaeda, Putin or Daku Mangal Singh we don’t know. We don’t have a Richard Stallman like figure in India, that can talk about “Freedom, for Freedom’s sake”.

Thus, while it is hard to trust in the sunshine goodness of Zuckerberg, it is equally impossible to trust the guys behind the Savetheinternet, simply because we don’t know who they are. So, who should we trust, who, who, who?

Well, if you go by my advice, there is one person that can be innately trusted when it comes to Internet; after all he is the man responsible for the very reason why we can have this debate; as he is credited for inventing the WWW (or the Internet for the ignorant). Sir Tim Berners-Lee has stated his position quite clearly,

In the particular case of somebody who’s offering … something which is branded internet, it’s not internet, then you just say no. No it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something … [only] giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards.

In the end, I’d like to go with Sir Tim on this one. I don’t really know that the Internet will be better off, or worse off, with all the saving (remember that missionary paradox), but I am sure the Free Basics stuff is no good either. The best way to promote digitization is not to have people (untouched by the magic of the Net) sharing “what is on their minds”, but by putting the right things on their minds. And frankly, I really don’t think Facebook is equipped to do or enable that. Hence dear Zuckerberg, please do stop bothering too much about Ganesh, the farmer. “How does Ganesh being able to better tend his crops hurt the internet?” you had asked. Well, in the cyclical and karmic land of India, dear Mark, we tend to find our ways. Thank you ever so much for bothering. Please do enjoy your lunch — which won’t be free anyways..

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