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The billionaire, big data and net neutrality: Facebook and democracy in India

“One user even said Facebook sent him a notification that his deceased uncle had supported Free Basics and so he should too.” 

Indian crowd scene, 2015. Indian crowd scene, 2015. Flickr/Jon Connell. Some rights reserved.Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is to many a hero of the Information Age, and he has been at the forefront of a new era of philanthropy, joining the ranks of other multibillionaires who “give back and give big” such as Bill and Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation and their collaborator Warren Buffet and his son Howard Buffett whose own philanthropy, as the world’s third richest person, has been touted by Bloomberg Markets magazine as having embarked on a “philanthropic mission to end global hunger.”[i] 

This new grand-scale philanthropic movement is encapsulated perhaps nowhere more vividly than in the Gates’ moral commitment and foundation called “The Giving Pledge” whose aim is to inspire the world’s wealthiest to give away most of their net worth either at the time of their death or during their lifetime.  By December 2015, over 141 individuals or couples had pledged to the initiative.  Yet neither their philanthropy nor their considerable contributions to the world of big business – indeed to the business of the whole world – have managed to escape controversy, including, as noted recently in an article on openDemocracy, charges of (especially American) neo-colonialism.  Oddly, some of these controversies have emerged as the inseparable obverse of their contributions to society. 

Zuckerberg, in particular, has received praise but also criticism following his pledge to give away 99% of his Facebook shares, worth a mere $45 billion today (in a letter to his newborn daughter, Max).  His largesse, whose grandly stated goal is to “enhance[e] human potential and promot[e] equality” has no match even among the philanthropic advance guard.  But his plan to fund particular, personally approved institutions has been viewed with not a little suspicion.  More recently Zuckerberg once again discovered that the relation between contribution and controversy is analogous to that between recto and verso in a book, during a town hall meeting at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, Oct. 28, 2015 where he was the chief guest.  It must have caused some chagrin to this celebrity innovator and philanthropist that despite Facebook’s goals, in line with Zuckerberg’s avowedly philanthropic intentions to enhance human potential and promote equality, Free Basics has been permanently banned from India.

Under the admirable goal of enabling a “connected India,” Zuckerberg had proposed to offer Free Basics to Indian citizens, calling it a “first step to connecting 1 billion Indians to the opportunities online—and achieving digital equality in India.”  The application, or “app,” was originally called the Internet.org app; it is now part of Facebook’s broader Internet.org mission to offer free net access, closing the digital divide that puts at a disadvantage some less well-off users who cannot afford or do not have connectivity.  Under the new name the “zero-rated” Free Basics app provides not only access to the internet but also to other (third-party) services that generally increase connectivity.

On the face of it, this goal is unexceptionable, and moreover it is analogous at least in principle to the Unique Identity initiative (the UID or “Aadhaar” project), which has already been put in place and which has at least informally been accepted as a dimension of India’s progress towards universal access for India’s billion-plus citizens to institutions such as banking – as an instance of digitally enhanced democracy in a modern India. The Aadhaar project has not yet received official approval but it has nonetheless made significant headway already in its goal of providing a unique digital identity to every Indian citizen. 

Yet, despite Facebook’s claims that it would help Indians to gain access to the global internet community, “serving as a bridge to the full, paid internet” in a way that would be “non-discriminatory, non-exclusive and open to all developers” (just as the Aadhaar project claims to be universally inclusive, and to offer an open platform accessible to all developers of secondary apps, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), led by Chair R.S. Sharma, was hostile to Facebook’s bid – a partnership with India’s Reliance Communications group – to introduce Free Basics.

Initially, TRAI issued a statement on “Over The Top Services,” which elicited a million Indian users to email TRAI their responses. Then, TRAI followed on with a “Consultation Paper” on “Differential Pricing for Data Services,” in December 2015, shortly after Zuckerberg’s appearance in New Delhi.  That paper received over 5 lakh responses from the public.  On February 8, 2016, it issued a “Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016,” forbidding Internet Service Providers from offering or charging “discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content being accessed by a consumer.”

The Net Neutrality debate – a debate about the principle that Internet service providers should be neutral about network applications and content and not discriminate against or block some while preferentially treating others by for example charging different rates or providing different bandwidths – arose first when the phone service provider, Airtel, proposed to charge separately for voice-over-internet (VOIP) calls, but was forced to retreat in the face of the ensuing public outcry against Airtel’s “zero-rating” plan and against telecom industry plans to offer discounted rates for selected websites (selected by the telecom industries, effectively advantaging some sites over others). 

Facebook’s equivalent proposal to offer Free Basics prompted a similar public protest from users, who insisted that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not discriminate on the basis of which content or service is being provided online.  TRAI agreed with the idea that consumers deserve “unhindered and non-discriminatory access to the internet.” It determined that differential pricing or data tariffs for internet content and apps is unacceptably discriminatory, as is differential pricing based on the source of those apps or that content (the Internet Service Provider) – except in some exceptional circumstances such as national crises.  A penalty of up to Rs. 50 lakhs a day would be levied on any violators.

However, it recognized that true net neutrality requires ongoing vigilance and can be achieved only piecemeal and over the long term.  At the same time it acknowledged the importance of institutionalizing a clear set of principles or rules, “a case-by-case approach based on principles [standards] or rules would “fail to provide much needed certainty to industry participants….service providers may refrain from deploying network technology” and perversely “lead to further uncertainty as service providers undergoing [the] investigation would logically try to differentiate their case from earlier precedents.” 

This victory for net neutrality comes thanks in some measure to the many volunteers at Save the Internet (such as Apar Gupta, Raman Chima and Kiran Jonnalagadda and many others) and “associated NGOs, movements, entrepreneurs and activists who organized millions of Indians to stand up and petition TRAI to preserve some of the underpinnings of the Internet.”  

Thanks , but no thanks?

But in the light of these developments and the final decision by TRAI, how should we read the avowedly egalitarian rhetoric produced by Facebook to provide universal access to a billion Indians?  After all, that looks prima facie like a laudable ambition, coherent with Zuckerberg’s own philanthropic rhetoric and at least on the surface consistent with democratic values also espoused by the Aadhaar initiative.  And if we cast suspicion on Facebook’s apparently egalitarian rhetoric, should we read Zuckerberg’s philanthropic rhetoric with equal suspicion?

In fact, a close look at Facebook’s bid does invite skepticism about the rhetoric.  Facebook’s bid came under suspicion primarily for its campaign to get users to send an email to TRAI, perhaps inspired by the crowd-sourcing model so popular in other campaigns to garner support for a host of causes both small and large; the resulting deluge of communications almost inundated the TRAI, prompting some to describe it as a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. 

Rohin Dharmakumar noted the irony that many of those who were recruited to mount this DDoS attack were unaware of having been involuntarily conscripted as “botnets.” After all the alleged “attack” visited upon TRAI seemed to have been initiated almost exactly 24 hours after TRAI published the aforementioned Consultation Paper on Differential Pricing for Data Services. Across the nation, users began to see an alert pop up in their notifications, which read: “Act Now to Save Free Basics in India.” 

As Dharmakumar writes on his Times of India blog, “Those who clicked the alert were taken to a specially designed page where Facebook, using emotion-laden, fear-inducing messaging like “Without your support, it could be banned in a matter of weeks”; “Unless you take action now, India could lose access to free basic Internet services” and “A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality”, asked them to register their support for Free Basics by sending TRAI a pre-drafted email.

Even the “free” in “Free Basics” invites scrutiny.  While signing on to Free Basics was indeed going to be “free,” the user would need to sign deals with individual ISPs and telecoms.  In country, users would have no option but to use Reliance Communications – Facebook’s partner in this venture – as their sole mobile network.  Now, that has been ordered terminated by TRAI.

Furthermore, while Facebook had presented Free Basics as having a “zero rating,” such a rating is a violation of the principle of net neutrality.  Before India’s net neutrality regulations had been formulated, the Department of Telecom had ordered a ban on such ratings.

But that was not the end of Facebook’s bending of the rules.  Dharmakumar notes that “many Facebook users complained on Twitter that merely scrolling through Facebook’s Free Basics page on their phones caused Facebook to record their support, and then message that “support” to their friends in turn, thus rapidly spreading the Free Basics campaign across social circles. One user even said Facebook sent him a notification that his deceased uncle had supported Free Basics and so he should too.”  Dharmakumar points out that what seemed most underhanded in Facebook’s messaging was its avoidance of any mention of the phrase “differential pricing,” which was highlighted in TRAI’s paper title; it was thus a rhetorically suspect attempt to sidestep the substantive issue of the case.  To obfuscate this rhetorical sidestep, Facebook “started expanding [its] campaign of deliberate disinformation to other media—SMSes, roadside hoardings, 2-page advertisements in every major newspaper almost every day, WhatsApp promotions, online video ads and radio.  The messaging kept evolving, becoming progressively more and more “ vague, misleading and emotional.” Strangely, the messaging included not only pseudo-democratic exhortations such as “Support a connected India” but also such irrelevant gems as “Support Rahul [Gandhi?]” and even “Support Ganesh”!

Dharmakumar also notes that a Tamil-language SMS sent to mobile users in Tamil Nadu said “Free Basics provides all basic Internet services for free” and asked them to make a “missed call” to a number provided, registering their support.  This is dishonest because while Free Basics of course does provide Facebook, it does not provide all basic Internet services (not even Google!), but Facebook was now hijacking those users’ mobiles to send responses to TRAI—up to 5.5 million responses. 

Dharmakumar concludes with a warning: “If Facebook’s DDoS attempts go unchecked, why will a Google or Microsoft not want to leverage its Android/Search or Windows/Office users to hijack public policy agendas at scale?  DDoS-ing a website is a criminal activity in most countries.  DDoS-ing a regulator should be no less.”  

Facebook’s manipulations of language may not have been strictly legal, political, or criminal but they can be interrogated as possibly ethical missteps. They are in the first instance rhetorical manipulations or abuses.  But they are not merely rhetorical, as if “rhetorical” were somehow to be opposed to “real.” 

While we may find ourselves cheering the re-conscientization of the world’s billionaires (as perhaps Paolo Friere might put it, were he alive today), their new resolve to give back some of the enormous wealth they have accumulated, that re-conscientization does not necessarily lift the burden of conscience in the realm of business, the source of that wealth, nor does it necessarily render unquestionable, excuse or launder the means through which that wealth was accumulated. Facebook’s grand rhetoric of “democratic access” and universal “equality” should not be allowed to stand without at least rhetorical interrogation or even deconstruction.

Yet that was not Facebook’s worst rhetorical blunder.  To make matters worse, Facebook’s director Marc Andreessen took the high road, tweeting that  “Denying world’s poorest free partial connectivity, when today they have none, for ideological reasons, strikes me as morally wrong.”  Then, he went further – indeed too far, suggesting that India would have been better off had it remained under British rule!  Suspicion about the neocolonial tendencies of the richest nations in the west are rife in the regions of the non-west that have only recently shaken off the yoke of colonialism, as L.K. Sharma notes in his article on openDemocracy. In response to protests following his remarks, Andreessen may have apologized and retracted his comments as inadequately considered.  But what he cannot erase is the fact that such neocolonialist rhetoric provides scaffolding even for the ideological revisionism of economic historians – who surely have had the luxury to consider their rhetoric more carefully – such as Niall Ferguson. 


[i] Betty Liu, “Getting His Hands Dirty,” Bloomberg Markets, The Wealth Issue: Giving with Purpose (December 2015): 30-36.

About the author

Samir Dayal teaches in the department of English and Media Studies at Bentley University in Boston. He is completing a book on Indian cinema.

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