Facebook’s Internet.org initiative has hit resistance in India, where many see it as a bid by the social media giant to be the web’s gatekeeper. Technology lawyer Mishi Choudhary talks to #mediadev about the uproar.
Mishi Choudhary is the legal director of the Software Freedom Law Center, whose Indian office she co-founded. She’s also a vocal opponent of Facebook’s plan to extend a stripped down version of the Internet to those parts of the world still offline – generally known as “Internet.org” but recently rebranded by Facebook as “Free Basics”. Choudhary's opposition to Facebook's initiative isn't because she thinks universal access is a bad thing. On the contrary, she's all for universal access but she doesn’t like how Facebook is going about it.
Like Choudhary, many Indians don’t believe Facebook’s aims are as noble as they seem. The initiative, which launched in February 2015 in India, gives people free access to a pared-down version of Facebook and a number of online services via apps, the Internet.org website or the Opera browser. But critics accuse the world’s largest social network of wanting to create an online version of a walled garden, which limits the sites people can access. They say, in effect, Internet.org allows Facebook to determine people's online experience by pushing its chosen services onto people who don’t yet understand what is available on the web.
Choudhary is part of a campaign called Save the Internet which has rallied a million Indians to call on regulators to stop Internet.org and put in place rules that would protect net neutrality. The principle of net neutrality says, among other things, that Internet access providers should give all customers equal access to all content. Indian legislators have been receptive to critics’ concerns. The uproar over net neutrality in India has led to a number of companies in India pulling out from the Internet.org service.
In September 2015, Facebook made changes to Internet.org, renaming it Free Basics and adding new web services and opening it up to developers.
#mediadev: How surprised were you that the Internet.org debate became such a national issue in India?
Mishi Choudhary: I wasn't surprised because I was working with a group of people who wanted it to become a national issue. We were very hopeful that youngsters as well as others wanted to see what was in the details and why this is not going to have the desired impact they thought it would. We also wanted to call out the disingenuousness of how Internet.org has been peddled to everybody. So I was very, very happy that it caught the imagination of everybody and that people started to ask these questions. The issue was in the electronic and print media, and parliamentarians started asking questions. Everyone knew this was an issue of great importance. We hope that the momentum continues so that Internet.org is not allowed at all.
In Germany, for example, it's sometimes very difficult to raise awareness about a complex policy-related issue. How did you do this in India?
There were so many people – in Bangalore, Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, small towns, everywhere. Around 70 to 80 volunteers came together, connecting and working digitally because they thought the issue was so important. It's self-assigned innovation and each one of them has been doing whatever they could. From my end, we have been preparing a leader response. We are talking to journalists and parliamentarians and trying to educate people. We are going on TV and social networks to talk about the issue. We're trying to explain it to my father who's 65 and my mother who is probably not that interested. Then there are the stand-up comedians who made videos about [net neutrality] that have become very, very popular.
It became a part of pop culture in a way?
Yes, it is pop culture. That's the fun bit of it. My brother, who is 21, started asking questions and got his entire college involved. I don't think one person or one organization can take credit. So many people came together.
To what extent did you actually engage with Facebook in this debate?
Some of the people from the group had discussions with Facebook but Facebook tried to play this weird game of pretending not to exist in India and yet existing and picking and choosing who they wanted to talk to and who they didn't. They would bring somebody [to India] from California to talk to the policymakers here and there. The attitude seems to be that they are so important and philanthropic and they’re just wondering why we’re giving them all this grief. They appear to think we don’t know what we’re talking about and believe that they have the money and political clout to push this thing through.
Do you think that Facebook began to understand what was going on or did they feel victimized in some sense?
I think they just thought they could sell Internet.org as this great philanthropic measure, while being able to suck up people’s data. And that no one would notice anything and they would be able to stay under the radar. They were not expecting the uproar and they were surprised. But, as I've heard, their feet are now planted on the ground and they're very invested. Now they are doing things like paying to fly journalists to California. They're also starting to lobby the developer community, paying for their developments to become part of Internet.org. Facebook is not engaging face to face with people or volunteers or society but rather applying pressure in different ways, and trying to buy their way through this.
Is the jury is still out on who is going to win this battle?
India's Department of Telecommunication's report completely trashed Internet.org but the ultimate decision has still not been taken. But people are not giving up and are not going to buy this disingenuousness. Facebook presented a question to everyone on the network that asked, "Are you in favor of access or not?" The possible answers were "Not Now" and "Yes". Well, what kind of access are they talking about? The kind you define because you are Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg so you can just buy your way through. People need Internet access but saying dirty water is better than no water at all is not the way to do it.
From a development perspective, what sort of access does India need?
All the Internet, all the time, for all the people. That's what we need. And if somebody wants to be a philanthropist and they want to give people access, they should give 100 MB of data or one hour of free data to everybody so that people can be producers as well as consumers. We're not giving all our information to these companies who create honeypots of data. We should be able to use the Internet as we want to use it. People should have a choice, whether they are poor, rich, in India, in Africa or in Germany. Just because they don't know something yet doesn't mean someone else should decide for them.
Facebook’s Internet.org initiative aims to bring internet access to the two-thirds of the world which doesn’t have it. Launched in 2014, it’s still dogged by controversy. #mediadev looks at the main questions around it. (17.08.2015)