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TRAI to India’s Poor: Let Them Eat Cake

By Wayan Vota on February 9, 2016


India’s digital elite is rejoicing with the news that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has officially banned zero-rating, where telecommunications service providers offer select content for free in an effort to boost subscribers.

The cheering isn’t really about zero-rating itself. No the reason I’m writing about an arcane policy that most digital development practitioners had not even heard of a year ago, is because Facebook is involved, and Facebook is evil. Or so the digital elite of India has decreed, usually on Facebook.

A Pyrrhic Victory

To hear the digital elite of India tell it, Facebook is an evil cyber-colonizer, eager to suck the very digital identity of India away through its Free Basics program that violated a Utopian version of net neutrality that hasn’t existed in any country trying to bring millions of poor citizens online.

Instead of rallying behind Free Basics, which is proven to onboard more people to the free and open Internet than anything else ever implemented, the digital elite have succeeded in putting high-minded principle over the real practicality of a billion poor people.

Now India has “pure” net neutrality. It also still has only a fraction of its citizens online, and no way to bring them over the three main barriers of adoption – handset costs, usage costs, and relevant content – and into the digital world.

But who cares about the poor? Certainly not the digital elite who usurped the voice of the poor for their own principled purity, and yet have no better way to get the poor online. Their goal was to beat Facebook, not to empower the poor.

India’s offline poor will now have no bread till they can afford cake.

This is a loss for all of us, rich and poor, Indian and global citizen, digital or not. But especially not.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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25 Comments to “TRAI to India’s Poor: Let Them Eat Cake”

  1. Mic drop on that note. The line about cake… Same thing I have said about mobile phone ownership: perhaps they should just communicate using smoke signals! A major disappointment.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I am just frustrated that here we have a tool, Free Basics, that drops two barriers – usage costs and local content – and can alleviate handset cost by making buying a phone a worthy investment, but is pilloried because its not a Utopian solution. Not that any org in India actually has a viable alternative though.

      Now if Indians really want pure net neutrality, they should be pushing for free 2G data for everyone.

  2. well, if one is in the business of supplying surveillance-cam-enhanced bread baskets to those with little choice, this is of course bad news.
    why oh why do they not accept our offer to hand in their data?
    the full picture is a little more multi-faceted.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Says the person already sitting at the feast, elbow deep in cake, every bite of which is already tracked. From this very website that logs commenters IP by default, to Google Analytics in the background, to your own browser and phone.

      Yes, the full picture is multi-faceted, and already surveillance-cam-enhanced, but alas, only debated by those already online. The billions offline have no voice, and by throttling Free Basics, you cut off a very successful option to give them one.

      • sebastian says:

        Exactly – we all are on a steady diet of fat cake –
        so why would it be up to us to say which bread those less fortunate have to accept?
        It s a market out there, and here, somebody chose not to accept the bread crumbs they were thrown.
        We, cake-eaters, should get used to this,
        These countries have governments, bodies, some elected, some not –
        why should it be up to us cake-eaters to decide about their diet?
        There are many paths to Free Basics – Facebook’s bread crumbs are not the only.
        (and as for the surveillance – not my IP and badger’s awake 🙂 )

  3. Mike Dawson says:

    The TRAI is the regulatory agency of a sovereign government that listened to it’s own people. No way to bring people online? Hmm… that’s not what the numbers show. No only a vibrant private sector, local tech scene, digital development strategies written by the government, and economic growth. The article has an overly colonial feel to me… and I’m British.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      People are getting online, true. Slowly, with a high price for entry. Free Basics supercharges entry, and as MNOs found in other markets, leads people to experience the entire Internet.

      But that’s not what mattered here, and if you read the actual ruling, it wasn’t even about listening to the majority of its people. TRAI ignored the 11 million responses from Facebook users, and went with responses from 8 service provider associations, 15 service providers, 42 organisations and institutions, and a limited number of individuals, to come to a decision.

      • Mike Dawson says:

        If the citizens of India don’t like what the TRAI did as part of the government of India they can submit their opinion to the TRAI, to their MP, they can protest, and ultimately they can vote out the government (and there’s higher voter turnout in India than in the US).

        There were lots of people against Free Basics even without any coordinated massive lobbying and advertising campaign. Many didn’t want any single entity deciding who wins and who doesn’t. Data bundle rates in India are as low as you’ll find anywhere in the world where you can start by trying a day of data for $0.25. India is heading towards having 500 million Internet users next year (up over a 30% in two years).

        I didn’t see any prominent people from India trying to tell the FTC in the US what to do when it investigated net neutrality.

  4. Venkat says:

    The right phrase is that the Internet Mullah’s have got their fatwas.Personally as an Indian I am disappointed with the untimely demise of Free Basics and it is sad to see smart folks take such an uninformed position on ‘net neutrality’, the web as we knew it was long dead,we are now in the social web there can’t be any question of ‘net neutrality’ when API’s use algorithms to decide what you see on your screen (or tImeline or news feed!). Where Facebook goofed is in their false humility, in not wanting to accept in the open that they along with Google,Apple and Amazon had long killed the ‘web’ as we once knew it.
    If the accusation is that Free Basics violates the concept of net neutrality which requires all players to treat all content at par. One can look at this in multiple ways For a start, India currently has no such rule or legislation. Secondly, a country like US, which does have such a provision, still does not see free access to selected websites (“zero rating”) as necessarily a violation.TRAI’s JOB is not to pick winners- or move out players on suspicion! – but to protect consumers by ensuring that markets work effectively. It is obliged to act proportionately after determining the nature, size and likelihood of possible harm to consumers or markets.Stopping Free Basics, without any data or subsequent analysis purely based on the fear of EAST INDIA COMPANY mentality, is simply bad regulation.
    Leave aside the relevance to India of an inflexible net neutrality legislation. Less than 20 countries have it. Several developed and developing countries, including India(till now), currently permit some differential pricing for web content and have not incurred noticeable damage. Also, virtually no country has an internet market like India’s. Almost all have existing fixed line networks and little competition for access. India relies predominantly on wireless (read leap frogging) and is therefore constrained for network capacity. And, it has abysmally low (20 percent) level of internet penetration. The TRAI has offered no serious evidence that consumers in countries with net neutrality regulation are doing better or that those without it, are doing worse. Therefore, even if Net Neutrality – no blocking, no throttling or paid prioritisation of internet traffic – is a sound principle the case for copycat rules is hardly obvious to me.Several Internet activists have raised concerns related to privacy and security. It is extremely stupid or naïve to dispute the importance of these issues. However, they are generic to almost all popular internet content, cloud services, mobile apps,iot etc.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Several Internet activists have raised concerns related to privacy and security. It is extremely stupid or naïve to dispute the importance of these issues. However, they are generic to almost all popular internet content, cloud services, mobile apps,iot etc.

      This is where I am really disappointed in otherwise sane and logical activists. They consider Facebook itself as inherently evil. As far as I can tell, they believe its mere existence is an affront to personal privacy, not realizing that people willingly post things there for the very reason to make them public.

  5. Venkat says:

    There is no doubt that Free Basics in the form it was,before its untimely demise yesterday was a violation of a deluded idea called ‘net neutrality’,but in the context of India we must see things as a bad violation and a not that bad violation,the ‘violation’ of net neutrality would gladden most of the more than 915 million who cannot afford to pay for data and so are not connected to the Internet. Such a violation raises the prospect of a cost-free Internet. A limited, impoverished, CKP’s ‘BOP’ Internet created not by altruism as most people assume it to be,but a serious competitive strategy, perhaps, but a free slice of Internet that might introduce hundreds of millions to a utility that everyone of the libertarian dare say, is a human right.
    This whole idea of ‘net neutrality’ was derived from a paper of Tim Wu, titled ‘Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination’. Let me warn you though in advance, he does not venerate the idea as much as present-day Internet-Marxists who used his discovery as their catchy phrase,much like the present PM who believes that all it requires is a catchy phrase to create transformation! Tim Wu is extremely clear in that paper to the absurdity of absolutist positions, and argues that the world, and probably every new phase in the technological age has to figure out a meaningful definition of ‘net neutrality’.The Solution is not Shutting out Free Basics but getting more FREE BASICS, COMPETITION,anyways i think Free Basics has already achieved quite a bit before its untimely demise yesterday,there are many NGOS, stand up comedians whose idea of delirious humor is fornicating mothers in the audience and even corporates now who are talking of taking the Internet to the poor,no one btw had stopped them from doing this before.!!!

  6. Vero Stel says:

    We can call the supporters of the ruling as many pithy names as we want, but I think that an outside actor determining what’s right in a situation – whether that person be Wayan Vota or Facebook – is wrong, and I think many anthro-minded people would agree. Sure Facebook racked up 11 million people to autosign their letter, but I would assume, based on how quickly I sign terms of consent, that the degree of thought those people gave to their support is far less than the cumulative hours spent by the 8 spas, 15 service providers, 42 orgs and various individuals voicing their dissent… but Facebook probably has data on that – should we ask?

    Regardless, if we look at the Principles for Digital Development, at a minimum four stand out to me as being violated by Free Basics: “design with the user,” “understand the existing ecosystem,” “address privacy and security,” “use open standards.” Although I agree that the prospect of getting so many people online so quickly sounds exciting and why would we NOT support something like this, if we take these Principles as the pillars of responsible development then unleashing Free Basics is simply being irresponsible. Fallout from such ignorance in both developed and undeveloped countries has resulted in countless data breaches, invasions of privacy, and sadly physical harm across technology companies. Is there a perfect answer? Of course not, but with increasing magnitude of the impact also comes increasing magnitude of the fallout

    Going 100 miles an hour seems fun and exciting for sure, but with so many innocent bystanders at risk and a lack of real understanding of the consequences such rapid change could bring, a bit of prudence – at the very least – is certainly in order

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I would say that Free Basics is very much designed with the user in mind. The user with a feature phone on 2G who is extremely price conscious and needs an inducement to get online. Those users voted with their fingers.

      Facebook certainly understands the user ecosystem and the MNO ecosystem, though they did not fully realize the political economy of India. I think that’s a error of many tech companies in many countries.

      The Be Open Principle is always the most debated, but I don’t see us having this fit with Google, which is just as closed with its code and data.

      As for Privacy and Security, Facebook is no better, yet no worse, than any other website. In fact, as they haven’t spilled user data across the Internets, they’re probably better about security than most.

      So unless you’re advocating no Internet, or a wholesale re-write of basic Internet tenets, we have to accept what we have, not wait for some Utopian future that’s not coming.

      • Vero Stel says:

        Maybe it was designed with the user in mind, but not with the user. From experience selecting pre-existing tools to pay lots of money to develop and localize, I can say that having actual representation in the room changes the conversation. Also – if Facebook actually designed with the user, we would’ve seen it in some kind of marketing material 😛

        For your last few points, I think it’s unfortunate that we have to accept this to be true and that we have to defer to “well everyone else is doing it.” You’re right, they’re doing a great job thus far protecting all of that data from massive breaches — but accounts are taken over, hacked, closed for erroneous or malicious reasons, constantly. I don’t think “change” necessarily needs an >internet< rewrite, however.. A company with such financial and technical might can't produce something better than the standard? It's more innovative, okay, they're a company beholden to shareholders, okay, but if anyone can rewrite the rules, it's Facebook. I would love to see Facebook undergo a massive internet security campaign aimed at changing user behavior for the better — we've seen how fast a campaign can go up. Where are those billboards touting secure passwords? Where are those page long advertisements about basic internet tools?

        Teach people what the internet is, teach people to use it safely, and then maybe we can talk about Free Basics. At the risk of posting an overly simplified shallow analogy, when I was a kid I was happy to eat brownies for every single meal, and I would sign anything anyone put in front of me to keep it this way, but mom put greens in front of me. Now I certainly still have brownies but I’m a bit smarter about my consumption.

        • Venkat says:

          1.Firstly this debate is in itself unfair,because in India,the 20% who have Internet are deciding for the 80% who are oblivious to even such a discussion,now that has been sorted out with Free Basics untimely demise.

          2. This entire debate also in the context of India exposes the libertarian hypocrisy which is that we want government NOT TO INTERFERE IN OUR LIVES, unless it’s stuff we want to impose on other people.

          3. If Free Basics is an evil corporate plot of Facebook then it is a damn good one.

          4. About a billion Indians are not connected to the Internet because it is too expensive for them, but most of them have at least feature phones(yep there are more Mobile phones in Indian than toilet is a true adage). So now, in theory, all of India can be online. But the mullahs of net neutrality say that Free Basics is unethical because it violates some ambiguous definition. Also, they suspect Facebook is trying to hijack the Internet.

          5. But whatever be the debate,all this is subordinate to the fact that the poor have a right to some Internet? The mullahs say let the service providers or the government offer free MBs every month to the poor. But then what is stopping them? You’ve been paid by the Satan Facebook, the mullahs accuse(just like one moron in the post below)!

          6.A lazy, neurotic suspicion of the large corporation(the deeply rooted congenital East India Company fear) is also behind the obtuse alarm over Free Basics. But the very strength of the parallel Internet for the poor is that it is corporate strategy. Mark Zuckerberg has tried his best to give it a humanitarian spin, which may not be wholly a lie, but I do hope the venture is not purely altruistic. (We know what happens when JNU alumni try to save the world.) Facebook, in search of new market segments, would end up doing more good than Internet-altruists. It already has. In response to Internet.org there are now serious corporate and social movements to take the Internet to the poor. Nothing stopped them from achieving this before.

        • Venkat says:

          If India’s poor were denied their kerosene and food subsidies, and cheap railway tickets and electricity, they would hit the streets and bring the nation to a halt. If they fully understood what they are being denied by India’s Internet activists, they would do the same.

          • Ankita says:

            @ Mr. Venkat

            You think people need to use Facebook & Whats app, and maybe Flipkart before they need to use essential commodities.

            Additionally I hope you understand that this is not “Free Internet”. The internet is a helpful tool, but this is a “Free Facebook”, and a “Free Select Websites”. Agreed there are a few worth while sites, but are they enough to truly empower the un-connected.

            Hats off to your logic sir. Honestly I am beyond words. I hate to be sarcastic at this point.

          • Venkat says:

            Look all I am saying is educate the 80% and let them decide! The debate is completely unfair because the people who stand to gain maximum from this are not part of the debate,hell they dont even know such a debate exists! Secondly if there was no free email to start with email would not have even existed as we now know it. I am perfectly ok with paying a few dollars now for my gmail,that is the basis of a business model called “FREEMIUM”,There is nothing altruistic about Free basics,even before its untimely demise,but as history of modern India shows it is corporate self interest which has done more to benefit the population than altruism. How do you assume that Free Basics could not have helped a plumber get a job help him make more money and hence have money to subscribe for a paid internet ? you think that’s wrong ? or that for a section Internet would mean Free Basics ? Basically the solution is not shutting down it is getting more competition.By shutting down free basics the liberatarian activists have only exposed their hypocrisy which is that we want government NOT TO INTERFERE IN OUR LIVES, unless it’s stuff we want to impose on other people or as tweet beautifully said “When you buy a car, it’s fulfilment of aspiration. After that, the next guy who buys a car is just traffic. Let’s regulate.”

  7. Ankita says:

    Dear Mr.Vota

    1. Facebook was asking citizens in US & UK to send emails to TRAI. These were people who had no contextual and practical idea of the ground realities of India.

    2. Many Indians did not even accept the spam request from Facebook, but were automatically signed up. A gross mis-use of Facebook’s reach.

    3. The response from Facebook generated SPAM to TRAI was not answering the questions asked. It was only digital garble.

    4. India is not against Free Internet, it is against differentiated Internet. Why can’t Facebook offer un-restricted access similar to Google and other organizations.

    It clearly seems that you have been paid by Facebook to write such a non-sensible argument. I am sure you have neither understood the context nor the bane of Facebook’s desperate attempts to enable Free Basics in India. India offers one of the lowest costs for Internet access, and here it is un-dettered access.

    Request you to mind your own business. Indians are smart enough to comprehend whats best for them.

    • Venkat says:

      //India is not against Free Internet, it is against differentiated Internet. Why can’t Facebook offer unrestricted access similar to Google and other organizations.//

      Do you even know what you are talking ? when there are algorithms that decide what you see on your screen or timeline or new feed’ including the unrestricted access similar to google’ where does ‘undifferentiated internet’ even exist ?
      The problem is most folks inability to go beyond internet that they knew and grew up with and what it is now which is essentially the social web.

      • Ankita says:

        @ Mr. Venkat

        Do you understand the meaning of differentiated ? Hope you get back to Oxford dictionary.

        Differentiated access is the primary concern for most people. Absolutely privacy is too, but we understand that is the cost for getting free access to services of various websites. We would want Facebook to provide free internet in totality, which means we can access anything.

        How helpful do you think is Facebook to people who can not access Internet. Going by your logic, it seems all people below the poverty line dream of accessing Facebook & a few select websites. Incase you do look at the array of websites offered by Facebook, most are of no use to people not able to access it.

        Request you to see this new initiative : http://www.storypick.com/free-wifi-first-indian-village/

        Interestingly even Google and Airtel seem to be working on these lines.

        Airtel E-Shakt offers free data to people in rural Madhya Pradesh, where you are free to get empowered by any website. They also go and train people to make the best use of the internet.

        Interestingly Free Basic’s campaigns does not reflect the manipulated numbers.

        Honestly speaking it is highly irresponsible of people like you, to make comments without getting into the depth of the matter. I think we should thank our stars Mr. Venkat, we only have one of you.

        • Venkat says:

          @Ankita – Firstly I am not an activist,I am only an engineer secondly I quote “The clubbing of Net Neutrality and Free Basics based on an extreme, theological and rigid interpretation of an ambiguous and evolving principle was a classic activist deceit. This falls in line with the fact that the greatest evil of our times does not have the appearance of evil, but of good” and Finally No packet networks have ever been ‘neutral’, and none ever will be. The idea of ‘neutrality’ is not an objective and measurable phenomenon, as shown by the recent work published by Ofcom.
          It is an invention of the legal classes attempting to force novel distributed computing services into a familiar carriage metaphor.
          ‘Neutrality’ has an evil twin, called ‘discrimination’. Asserting that internet packets are being “discriminated” against is a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between the intentional and operational semantics of broadband.
          Neither concept is a term of the art of performance engineering or computer science.
          No scheduling algorithm is ‘(non-)discriminatory’. The assumed intentionality of random processes is false. The idea of ‘defending’ neutrality is thus a pure intellectual nonsense. Regulators who attempt to legislate ‘neutral’ networks into existence will find themselves in collision with mathematical reality.
          The ideas of ‘congestion’ (whether ‘imminent’ or not) profoundly misses the point and reality of packet networks. The raison dd etre of packet networks is to statistically share a resource at the expense of allowing (instantaneous) contention. Networks safely run in saturation are a good thing.
          In other words, we would ideally like to be able to have as much contention as possible, to lower costs, as long as we can schedule it to deliver good enough user experiences. The discussions offered around ‘congestion’ are beyond irrelevant, they are simply meaningless. Genuinely, they fall into the category of ‘not even wrong’.
          This is exactly like making Vishwanathan Anand play chess against a Crow. TRAI faced a simple choice: either there is a rational market pricing for quality (that developers must participate in), or there is rationing of quality. Which one do you want?
          Obviously what we learnt from the activist and TRAI is the new interpretation of an absurd ‘Nehruvian Socialism’ which is not even socialism and completely irrelevant to current days.And don’t worry there will be a disruptive innovation to beat the crap out of these regulators as well.

        • Venkat says:

          And While they are deluded and celebrate here is another thing to ponder and I hope the “activists” do something about this also.

          That there was so much outpour of support for net neutrality, including by Ola. The same reasoning doesn’t apply to negative ‘unit economics’ of big-money-fuelled-discounts-for-world-domination. This is of course disruptive business model and not unfair, but totally neutrally non-coercive means in the taxi market
          Ola and uber are losing money for every ride on their platform. In the net neutrality debate, a fundamental argument is that if telecom companies are allowed to treat some content providers favorably over others, then it would amount to restricting the availability of other content providers on the internet. That is, if airtel zero doesn’t charge for data which is consumed by airtel subscribers in accessing flipkart, then users will start preferring flipkart over amazon or snapdeal. Flipkart may pay airtel for making it completely free for airtel’s customer to access flipkart’s services. By having such preferred partners. airtel might dictate/influence/coerce what services airtel’s customers use. That is anyone wanting to compete with flipkart will now need airtel’s blessing or else the dice would be perpetually loaded against them. This is unfair interference in the market dynamics.
          Both uber and ola are paying handsome incentives to drivers on their platforms today. They also further extend a flurry of discounts to users. They are not just making taxi cheaper for users of their platforms, but effectively also paying a part of the cost of every ride completed via their platform. This is also brute interference in the market mechanisms of the taxi market; by undercutting and crowding out small, independent operators or taxi drivers. The dice is loaded against everyone else but uber & ola and the drivers on their platform. If it is morally not justified for airtel and flipkart to undercut the costs of accessing their services then how is it morally justified for ola or uber to make taxi operation for others unviable?
          There is another argument which says that the taxi market minus the olas and ubers is inefficient. Rides are not available ‘on demand’ where you want. It is often the case that taxis overcharge and are unwilling to go where you want. Olas and ubers make it a very smooth going; which if completely valid then should be able to attract customers to their platform without having to also part-pay for the rides. That, apart from the ‘experience’ on offer, these usurpers also need to use coercive tactics by bleeding money clearly points out the inadequacy of their disruptive business models. At least inadequate enough for their ambitions of taking over the entire world and at blistering pace. Yet, this coercion by the ‘startups’ are hardly the subject of ‘moral’ scrutiny as in the net neutrality debate. More than that, olas and ubers are the much cheered darlings in the esoteric world of startups; an inspiration to the very crowd so much on the forefront of the net-neutrality debate. Perhaps this blindspot is paid for, in the happily lapped up free/discounted rides. Perhaps the taxi drivers are lowly enough in the order of things warranting this blindspot
          (PS: Unit economics = costs and revenues for one single sale/transaction/user)

  8. Matt says:

    Alternate views from IT for Change are interesting

    And a nice bonus on the unexpected side-effects of the campaign too:
    http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/what-free-basics-did-not-intend-to-do/article8102897.ece and

  9. Matt says:

    This is a really interesting piece, and takes a very different tack to any of the usual discussions on this: