Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Free Basics or not, India's poor deserve to be connected to the internet

India, the world's second-largest smartphone market, but also home to millions of poor with no Internet access

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Feb 19, 2016 11:30:04 AM IST
Updated: Feb 19, 2016 03:49:33 PM IST
Free Basics or not, India's poor deserve to be connected to the internet
Image: Mexy Xavier

India, home to more than 130 million Facebook users and counting, has extremes. On the one hand, we have well-to-do parents who are oblivious to their children's digital avatars, and on the other, those who are unable to cobble together two decent meals a day for their offsprings. Facebook, purportedly, wants to help the second lot, especially, by hooking them up to, well, Facebook.

That was the argument of those who said Free Basics was the social networking giant's attempt at becoming the de facto gateway to the World Wide Web and the Internet, and that too, only when a first-time user actually realised that there were such things as the Web and the Internet — beyond Facebook.

If it sounds implausible that someone could be using Facebook, and not know of the Internet, ask Helani Galpaya, CEO of linreAsia, an ICT think tank, who discovered just such a trend in Indonesia almost four years ago. LinreAsia summarised Galpaya's findings in a May 2012 post titled "Facebook = Internet," as follows:

"Few months back, our (then) COO Helani Galpaya was out in the field in Indonesia, doing qualitative interviews with BOP teleusers. She picked up an odd response pattern: negative answers to questions about Internet use that would lead us to conclude the respondent was not an Internet user but claims that they were using Facebook on the mobile. So it seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook."

The argument over whether it is inherently wrong to allow controlled access to some parts of the web will go on, but India's telecom regulator has decided that such a thing is discriminatory and therefore can't be allowed in this country. That's the inference many have drawn from the Telecom regulatory Authority of India's February 8 ruling that "differential pricing" by carriers "militates" against the spirit of an open Internet. Facebook has pulled Free Basics from India.

What this means for India's poor isn't clear, for there are those who agree with Zuckerberg that even limited access to some information, where there was none before, can make a difference — even when controlled by a for-profit corporation. Although, In India's case, Free Basics wasn't really reaching the abject poor, but those who could at least afford a mobile phone, and a subscription with Reliance Communications Ltd, the country's fourth-largest wireless carrier, and Facebook's partner on Free Basics.

However, with handsets becoming ever cheaper — one company in New Delhi, Ringing Bells, is claiming it will soon sell an Android smartphone for 251 rupees ($4) — cost of data remains the biggest hurdle, and Free Basics addressed that to some extent. And as long as cost of data doesn't come down, Free Basics or not, business innovations will be vital to providing the poor access to the Internet, open or controlled.

In an opinion piece on TRAI's ruling, Galpaya herself argued recently, that what happened in India "was also a case of the already-connected (and therefore able to send an email to the regulator) having their say on something that primarily affects the as yet unconnected. For those who care about public participation in policy processes, it was moment to behold." The title of the opinion piece stated India's step towards net neutrality "ignores millions of unconnected."

Facebook has seen better days in India, like when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, visiting the company's Menlo Park headquarters last year, emotionally praised CEO Mark Zuckerberg's parents for giving birth to and raising the man who wants to connect everyone on the planet. There was also talk and local media reports back in India about piloting Facebook's other efforts at connecting more people to the Net, under its programme.

Yet, only a few months down the line, Kirthiga Reddy, Facebook India's managing director, and the company's first employee in the country, has announced she would be moving back to the US in the coming six to 12 months, in a post on her Facebook page on February 12. Reddy said it was a "natural transition" for her and her family as her daughters were preparing to attend high school and middle school this coming year, but the timing of her announcement probably couldn't have been worse from a public relations point of view.

Reddy's announcement came as a sort of a finale to a week that had already seen Marc Andreessen, a Facebook board member, tap out a series of tweets to his nearly half a million followers on the microblogging site Twitter, questioning TRAI's rationale, which ended in a tweet that suggested Indians were better off under colonial rule.

Outrage in both countries was swift, and Andreessen deleted the offensive tweets, and later apologised in another series of tweets. Zuckerberg, however, posted his own response on Facebook strongly denouncing Andreessen's views, adding they were "deeply upsetting."

Zuckerberg's swift and sharp response once again underscores India's growing importance to America's Internet giants Facebook and rival Google Inc, locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of the 1.25 billion people in the world's largest, largely pro-western, democracy. Both Facebook and Google are banned in China.

Anshul Gupta, a research director at Gartner Inc, pointed out in a phone interview that India is also seen as the market that holds the key to the future growth of other technology giants too such as Apple Inc. Today, India is the largest smartphone market in the world save China, and more than one in three handsets sold in the country is a smartphone. More people access the Internet on their smartphones in India than on personal computers.

It is a market Facebook can ill-afford to lose. And that is a good thing, because Facebook has a history of pushing back, and with better solutions. India's poor might yet get on to Facebook, and eventually the Internet.