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Friday, April 24, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg Clarifies Internet.org on Facebook - A Counter-Argument

On 17th April 2015, Mark Zukerberg clarified about internet.org and his mission to provide free internet access to millions of people who are otherwise deprived of it due to regional, economical, political or personal factors. He posted a message on his Facebook page to respond to the public outcry on Net Neutrality in India. Since I believe that true journalism is in bringing forward both sides of an argument, I am sharing the message here:- (Directly quoted from Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook Page). 

"Over the past week in India, there has been a lot written about Internet.org and net neutrality. I’d like to share my position on these topics here for everyone to see. 

First, I’ll share a quick story. Last year I visited Chandauli, a small village in northern India that had just been connected to the internet. In a classroom in the village, I had the chance to talk to a group of students who were learning to use the internet. It was an incredible experience to think that right there in that room might be a student with a big idea that could change the world — and now they could actually make that happen through the internet. 

The internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress. It gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities. It gives voice to the voiceless in our society, and it connects people with vital resources for health and education. 

I believe everyone in the world deserves access to these opportunities. 

In many countries, however, there are big social and economic obstacles to connectivity. The internet isn’t affordable to everyone, and in many places awareness of its value remains low. Women and the poor are most likely to be excluded and further disempowered by lack of connectivity. 

This is why we created Internet.org, our effort to connect the whole world. By partnering with mobile operators and governments in different countries, Internet.org offers free access in local languages to basic internet services in areas like jobs, health, education and messaging. Internet.org lowers the cost of accessing the internet and raises the awareness of the internet’s value. It helps include everyone in the world’s opportunities. 

We’ve made some great progress, and already more than 800 million people in 9 countries can now access free basic services through Internet.org. In India, we’ve already rolled out free basic services on the Reliance network to millions of people in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana. And we just launched in Indonesia on the Indosat network today. 

We’re proud of this progress. But some people have criticized the concept of zero-rating that allows Internet.org to deliver free basic internet services, saying that offering some services for free goes against the spirit of net neutrality. I strongly disagree with this. 

We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It’s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it. 

But net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist. 

To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all. 

Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes -- and it never will. We’re open for all mobile operators and we’re not stopping anyone from joining. We want as many internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected. 

Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity. Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected. 

Every person in the world deserves access to the opportunities the internet provides. And we can all benefit from the perspectives, creativity and talent of the people not yet connected. We have a historic opportunity to connect billions of more people worldwide for the first time. We should work together to make that happen now." 

(This post was flooded with counter responses, in the form of comments, from Indian citizens pointing out the various flaws in the whole statement, for which Mark has not given any suitable replies.) 

Counter-argument

This is Mark Zuckerberg's point of view. But the public at large isn't convinced about the need of having something like internet.org to provide free internet services to the people. Why create this divide between what should be accessed for free and why should they have to pay extra to view other websites when they have already paid for a internet data package. 

Mobile operators are already charging for data packages according to individual preferences and their usage wherein we are free to access whichever website we want to and also are free to download any apps from the various mobile app platforms (which may be free or paid). But that's again an individual choice.


So here, what can be seen is that a few top companies (Facebook in point) is trying to increase traffic to his own site through a platform created by him for personal gains via exclusivity granted to one mobile operator (Reliance, in this case in India) in the garb of doing charity work. Please remember, nothing comes for free. And this is no charity. Both Reliance and Facebook will be laughing their way to the bank. 

If they so believed in charity, or wanted to provide free internet access to a wider audience or the poor, like he is suggesting, why can't the mobile operators or government just provide a free wi-fi zone for villagers? And many other public places? How many such free wi-fi zones are available in public places in India? None. Atleast, none that I know of. Whereas most developed countries have such free wi-fi zones scattered all over, so that connectivity to the net at any point of time is not such a major issue. These free wi-fi zones are available at major bus stops, public gardens, airports, railway stations etc. 

Sorry Mark, but I still don't see why we need a separate platform like internet.org to access the internet, which by it's own virtue is the "world wide web" and should be "open" and equally available to all at any point of time. As far as I can see, you are trying to control what people can access or can't by providing them a separate gateway, and then also making them pay for it. Slowly, other mobile operators will follow suit and have their own preferences as to the "bundle" of websites that should be included in the package. It is obvious that the companies, or websites that can afford to pay more for their inclusion in this package will get included rather than the websites that cannot pay. 

Already, as a case in point, Airtel (one of India's biggest mobile operator company) has come up with it's own Airtel Zero Plan, which has it's own set of rules or inclusions in the package provided. As a result of the public outcry, Flipkart one of the major e-commerce shopping sites in India decided to opt out of the package. Soon followed by Cleartrip.com (travel company) who also opted out of internet.org. So, clearly things are not as they claim to be. 

Soon, this will blow out of proportion and things will become difficult to control. The whole idea of internet (cyberworld) that was free to access and browse will become controlled, similar to what's happening in the digital TV world, where we are forced to select certain bundles of channels and pay for them even when we don't really end up watching even half of them. But, taking only individual channels is also equally expensive. 

So, I would urge all the people to read more on this issue at length, and protect your rights. I still believe that internet should be free to all, and a few selected biggies should not be allowed to manipulate the way we access it now, or ever. A lot of changes have happened since the advent of the internet and many people are now totally dependent on the internet for their daily earnings via websites, blogs, e-commerce sites or even freelance writing etc. Should they have to now pay to access their own sites?

There are always two sides to every coin. Here are some relevant articles that will enlighten us on this topic:

1. Timeline: Airtel Zero to internet.org, what fuelled the ongoing Net Neutrality debate in India
2. Cleartrip And Mainstream Media Websites Opted Out From internet.org
3. Why Flipkart Opted out of Airtel Zero And the Net Neutrality Debate so far.
4. In TRAI inbox, a million messages in support of Net Neutrality

Let the debate continue....

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Net Neutrality - The Debate Continues!

The debate of net neutrality is raging not only in India, but the rest of the world too, and not without reason. There is a lot to be worried about, for all the people who are using the internet, as the freedom to browse the network is in danger of being controlled or regulated by certain telecom companies and Internet Service Providers (ISP) who are trying to discriminate or block certain applications over others. 

What is this Net Neutrality all about? For those of you who still don’t have a clue:-

Net neutrality (also network neutrality, Internet neutrality, or net equality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.” 

The idea of an open Internet is the idea that the full resources of the Internet and means to operate on it are easily accessible to all individuals and companies.” (Wikipedia)

The whole debate on net neutrality, in India, intensified when telecom operators like Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance put across the proposal to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to allow them to block certain apps and websites to extort more money from consumers and businesses. 

In fact, it was Mark Zuckerberg who approached Reliance with his plan to bring Facebook to millions of Indians who were not yet using the internet, via internet.org. internet.org service is available to all the GSM (Postpaid/Prepaid) & CDMA (Prepaid) Mobile Customers of Reliance exclusively. Read all the terms of their services here. Basically, Internet.org app will offer free access to 38 sites including Facebook. This is somewhat like what we pay to watch cable TV, where we have to subscribe certain bundles of channels that we wish to watch. These channels are then priced accordingly. So, we are actually paying for the “service” of getting cable TV connectivity and then paying for the individual channels as well. This is what is being done here as well.


Following suit, Airtel came up with their own plan called the Airtel Zero Plan. In this plan, the internet companies would have to pay Airtel to allow users  to get free internet. On the surface, this may seem like a great idea and nothing wrong with it, but if you dig a little deeper you realise that there are now two sides :- Free and Paid sites. Read the full report on how Airtel Zero Plan would violate the freedom of net users here.

These violations of net neutrality isn’t a recent occurrence, but had started in 2007 - 2008 by an Internet Service Provider in the US named Comcast who intentionally slowed peer-to-peer communications. Thus, it was in 2008, 1st August that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) upheld a complaint against Comcast, ruling that it had illegally inhibited users of its high speed internet service using file-sharing software.

But, recently in May 2014, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler released a plan that would have allowed companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to discriminate online and create pay-to-play fast lanes. This created a furore in the public causing an outcry, which also turned political. It was thanks to this outcry that Wheeler was forced to shelve his plan and on 4th Feb, 2015, he promised to get new net neutrality rules based on Title II of the Communications Act, giving Internet users the strongest protections possible.

The FCC approved this proposal on 26th Feb 2015, which was a victory for all the activists who fought for a decade for this cause.

Coming back to the issue of net neutrality in India, it is now up to us to save the internet. Join in the fight by sending your response to TRAI now. The deadline to respond is 24th April 2015. That’s today. So if you are reading this, do click on the link and send in your response as quickly as possible. The more voices there are, the better. Do your bit. I just did.

If you want to read more on this issue, here are some useful resources: 

  1. Save The Internet
  2. The Airtel Zero idea: Splitting India’s Internet into many Internets
  3. savetheinternet.com
  4. The White House - Net Neutrality

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