Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg

Hello Mr. Zuckerberg,

At first, I take this opportunity to thank you for creating Facebook. While I rarely use it anymore, its importance as a social tool is undeniable. Similarly, I am grateful to you for buying companies like Instagram and WhatsApp, which provide stellar services to users the world over and are booming communities in their own regard. Also, congratulations to Priscilla and you for Max!

While there are many things I disagree with you about (what’s with the gazillion sponsored posts in Instagram?!), this letter to you is specifically about your op-ed in TOI yesterday regarding Free Basics and its association with Net Neutrality. It is quite commendable that you took the time out from your paternity leave to address the concerns we Indians have about the dynamics of how Free Basics does or does not infringe the fundamental aspects of net neutrality.

At the onset of your letter, you equate Free Basics to libraries, healthcare and education, making opposing Free Basics sound downright evil! I must say you have a marketing team that understands the market well, as we Indians are usually the first to jump boat on the opportunity to receive something for free. But, while being a strong proponent of Free Basics, you skip talking about few very important points raised by people much smarter than me, who’ve pointed out how and why Free Basics violates net neutrality. Let me take this opportunity to put those concerns in the metaphors cited by you.

While libraries usually have donated and popular titles, they rarely have the costly ones. Similarly, public healthcare provides free treatment of regular ailments and not every disease ever discovered. Education is designed to entail the understanding of the surroundings around us, but it is inane to expect a primary school to teach advanced subjects. But, on the internet, all data is equal. If I browse Facebook, I am spending the same few kbs of data that I’d spend using Google+, if that’s what I prefer. While the cost of providing readers rare books, or providing treatment for cancer, or teaching quantum physics is incomparably much larger, the cost of video streamed from Hungama is the same as the cost of streaming video from YouTube, to the ISP providing Free Basics.

That brings me to the economics of Free Basics. Most of these are provisioned by Governments, NGOs or private companies and individuals. The electricity, furniture, personnel working in such organizations aren’t obtained for or working for free, and often have it as the only job to support their families. They are correctly paid. With Free Basics, while making it sound so very noble, you fail to explain who will pay the telecom operators, whose data bandwidth will be used to access that data?

If Facebook (since all the developer-related material on Free Basics website is hosted on Facebook), why is Facebook acting as the gatekeeper of the internet deciding it’ll only pay for people who access Facebook, WhatsApp or other partner websites? I’m sure you’ll agree such a payment from Facebook to telcos is against the very essence of net neutrality.

If telcos do it voluntarily out of goodwill (which I doubt any of the Indian telcos have any of), again, why are telcos deciding which websites I get to visit for free? It dumbfounds me why entertainment or social networks exist on Free Basics. They are the luxuries offered on the internet, not basics.

Why should Facebook or Airtel decide if I use Facebook instead of Google+, or WhatsApp instead of Hike, or AajTak instead of NDTV, or AccuWeather instead of Yahoo Weather? Why should Facebook decide if Reuters Market Watch qualifies as a website worthy of being on Free Basics but MoneyControl doesn’t? Why should Facebook decide if Reliance has a network worthy of running Free Basics but Vodafone doesn’t? Why should my access to OLX not count against my monthly data subscription but me using Quikr would?

I am glad that Free Basics has helped Ganesh, but God forbid Ganesh was in an area where AccuWeather has terrible information about the prevailing weather conditions, and used those to plant his crops, the results he obtained on his crops would’ve been disastrous! Thus, shouldn’t such a choice lie in the hands of the consumer who is more aware of his needs than Facebook or Reliance?

I couldn’t agree with you more that India deserves better internet, or that millions of Indians who don’t use the internet today need to start using it to improve their lives, but the needs of all of us aren’t the same. While I prefer to use the internet for reading news and browsing technology websites, Ganesh would use it to get the weather information. That difference is exactly why some parts of the internet cannot be commoditized and offered for free while others cost real money to access.

I do believe that you have good intentions at heart, and thus this is my request to you: Dump the current plan of Free Basics. Pay for a small amount of internet for everyone over the world, not just India, Africa or Latin America. ALL. Say 200MB of internet at 2G or dial-up speeds, but pay each operator over the world, each broadband ISP over the world, for every new user that joins their network, and for those who already are on their networks. Let that user access Google or Bing based on his preferences and requirement. After that, let them pay for further access, if they find a use for the internet, just as they’d for further education or health insurance or books that they’d want to read. That would be a step in the right direction. This could be the bridge to showcase the power of the internet to the masses who have no idea what internet is and can do. Not, not Free Basics.

I have a lot of respect for everything you’ve done and continue to do, but this needed to be said.

Truly and humbly,

Setu Shah.

Update (29th December 2015, 20:48 IST): I have emailed a copy of this to Mark Zuckerberg.

For those who don’t know, Facebook, WhatsApp, Hungama, AajTak, AccuWeather, Reuters Market Watch, OLX, among others, are part of Free Basics, while Google+, Hike, YouTube, NDTV, Yahoo Weather, MoneyControl, Quikr, respectively, are the almost direct competitors offering similar services and are not a part of Free Basics.

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