‘Bad Internet for the Poor’: Indian Activists Oppose Facebook Connection Plan | Net neutrality

India is experiencing its uprising on the internet, and many Western activists do not know what to do about it.

Since the spring of 2015, Indian activists have created a fierce momentum against Facebook’s attempt to take over the country’s internet through a program called Free Basics.

Formerly called “Internet Zero”, Free Basics’ pitch was as follows: we will connect “the next billion Internet users” (that is to say the poor in developing countries) by making agreements with Internet companies. local phone. As part of these offers, there will be no charge to access the services we hand select. We will define the Internet experience for these technologically unsophisticated people, with our products at the center and without competition. It’s philanthropy!

Indian net neutrality activists have a specific name for this: “Poor Internet for Poor People”. They gathered thousands, then tens of thousands, and finally millions under this banner. They marched the streets, they took to the net, and they terrorized Facebook’s partner companies, showcasing their apps until they opted out.

They refused to accept Facebook’s demands for charity and development, pointing to Wikipedia’s experience in sub-Saharan countries, which ended up providing light reading to the country’s elites during commutes, but failed to reach a peak. significant number of poor people they were targeting. India’s net fighters have kicked Facebook back to the drawing board.

Western activists did not know what to think. In a meeting – details were withheld to protect well-meaning people – some of my colleagues reflected on setting up an advertising alternative to Facebook’s Poor Internet, anything to compete with.

I’m afraid I screamed a little. Here we have India’s SOPA moment: an unexpected and unprecedented uprising that caught the popular imagination, terrified one of the world’s largest corporations, politicians and regulators point out. Why don’t we support them in what they ask? Why don’t we just say, “The alternative to Facebook as the gatekeeper of the Internet is anybody as the guardian of the Internet? “

Indian activists did not need our help. They never blinked.

Facebook returned for a second round, with the rebranding of Free Basics, just around the time the Independent Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a short and compelling consultation document ask pointed questions. It’s only 11 pages long and ends with four questions, and you should read it – it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from an independent expert agency.

No one on Facebook seemed to read it. The company has mounted a charm offensive, with long, moving letters from Mark Zuckerberg in national newspapers, roadside billboards, multi-page newspaper ads, floods of text messages. An all-out media blitz aimed at getting people to react to the TRAI document and say they approved of Free Basics. They really went all out – some Indian Facebook users said just scrolling through the ads begging them to weigh in was enough to trigger a status update saying they approved the idea. .

It worked: Facebook received millions of comments in TRAI. But unfortunately for Facebook, the TRAI newspaper had not asked: “Do you support Free Basics? Thus, Facebook’s entire astroturf army was dismissed as not responding to questions raised in the newspaper. The TRAI President explained: “The TRAI consultations are not opinion polls; we are not asking “yes” or “no”. We ask you why you think it is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because that helps us formulate the guidelines ”

It was remarkably awkward on Facebook’s part. Someone should be fired for this. It was a huge waste of money and credibility in a fight that Facebook clearly sees as vital to its future.

India – and the rest of the developing world – are vital for the future of the Internet. The “next billion” will help shape it as much as the three billion of us who have already found our way online.

Previous offers to shut down the net (* cough * Microsoft * cough *) were rejected by competitors, notably Google. For more than a decade, Google believed (rightly so, it seems) that anything that makes the Internet bigger makes it richer. And he was willing to spend to get more people to go online and write and read the web in as many ways as possible.

But that was old Google, before large slices of the internet began to disappear into Facebook apps and walled gardens. These days, the seasoned Googlers I know are gloomy about the future of the web. An old man told me he wouldn’t be surprised if, five years from now, the web was where Usenet is today – a distant memory of gray beards Unix remembering the federated and wide open internet. that no company could pilot. User researchers today speak of young people who have no search history, who answer all questions by asking friends on one of Facebook’s many networks.

Last August, Google supported Facebook’s fight versus Indian Net Neutrality, putting pressure on its influential Indian industry association not to denounce Facebook’s plan.

That’s the downside of expecting Google to solve your problems. Whatever managerial role the company has played on the internet in years past, it has been crippled by its insecurity of other giants: less lawless, more top-down, and more mature businesses that seem to know. what they do. Previously, if you wanted Google to do something stupid (like agree to censor their offers in China), you had to ask Yahoo to do it first. Now that Yahoo is backing up in Google’s rearview mirror, you are leading it to do stupid things (like create another social network based on a “real name” like G +) by forcing Facebook to do it.

Google also wants to do something for “the next billion”. The company’s Project Zero attracted influential and ambitious engineers from across the company. If they’re smart, they’ll figure out how to deliver something Facebook couldn’t, not something Facebook will always be better. Rather than a network also run like G +, what about a social network that connects to whatever open web presence you have, using the search engine’s web crawling expertise to help you connect with your friends on the open web, in Youtube embeddable. style widgets that you can post on Facebook itself?

Rather than teaming up with the universally hated mobile phone companies of the developing world to get them to zero-rate your offerings, why not optimize Android for P2P file sharing of downloaded and cached material on wifi hotspots. – file exchange being already a very common and sociable practice at play in the developing world – treating telecommunications operators as the enemies of progress that they have always been, joining with users in subverting them and putting them at the gap?

India has millions of activists with an open internet movement that we should all jump on, and the next billion will go to the company that finds out how to work with them.

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