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Are Free Basics Really For Free?

Mark Zuckerberg, founder & Chairman of Facebook, has been aggressively pushing in the Indian market the “Free Basics”. Full page advertisements, followed by well structured interviews, are propagating the benefits of free basics like ‘Free Basics Protects Net Neutrality’ or “What Net Neutrality Activists Won’t Tell You or The Top 10 Facts About Free Basics”. As the ideas are noble, let me quote a few sentences from it: In every society, there are certain basic services that are so important for people’s wellbeing that we expect everyone to be able to access them freely. We have collections of free basic books. They’re called libraries. They don’t contain every book, but they still provide a world of good. We have free basic healthcare. Public hospitals don’t offer every treatment, but they still save lives. We have free basic education. Every child deserves to go to school. And in the 21st century, everyone also deserves access to the tools and information that can help them to achieve all those other public services, and all their fundamental social and economic rights. That’s why everyone also deserves access to free basic internet services.” Very well said, but the hidden cost renders it not free really- Internet service is costly in India. Unlimited surfing is costly and beyond the financial capacity of the majority of the population. Health care has been made unaffordable by the moneyed national and international persons that the average Indian gets it neither from government hospitals now nor can afford to go to private hospitals, which indulge in unnecessary diagnostic and pathological tests which cost enormous amounts of money. Same is the case with education, which is creating social and economic divide never before witnessed. Now, if internet also resorts to unethical business practices, we are better served by books rather than the internet, which costs not only money but precious time in getting to the right place and obtaining the desired information in required quantity. If an acknowledged person like Zuckerberg were also to impose an exploitative business model on users in India by laying a trap  through enchanting advertisements, though the corporate goals might be different, it will create frustration and ill will between net users in India and Facebook as a corporate entity. While Facebook might live up to its stated promises, its rivals and competitors will not be bound by any holy commitments to the users, as has been the mass experience in the field of education, healthcare and communication in India. If  Zuckerberg were to evaluate his goals against the public experience in India, he might change from free basics to free internet. Internet is man’s best gift to society in the modern world.

Availing internet service comes next only to acquisition of a computer or other gadget. It is prohibitive to the target group of one billion Indians left behind, whom zuckerberg wishes to serve. Besides, it introduces an element of control howsoever insignificant it may be, but it is bound to regulate or direct traffic to favoured sources in spite of the most honest intentions initially. It will create unbridgeable divide between the left behind and marching ahead Indians for long time. The text quoted above contains honestly the requirement of the people in India, but it can be served in a novel way only. India will continue for long the socialist intervention of the state to provide education, health, communication and employment opportunities. The State will need to devise mechanism to make available these services for free for people to join the digital society fully and profitably. Different grades of services, as available presently, is not the fair model, because it creates classes of the differently empowered segments of citizens with in the country in matters of education, skills and employment. India needs genuinely fully free internet services- no more, no less.

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