Breaking Down News: What’s In a Name?

The repackaging of Facebook’s internet.org sounds doom-laden.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: January 16, 2016 12:12 am

To the unaided eye — especially one unaided by smoke and mirrors — it appears that after an unprecedented ad blitz across media, Free Basics has been soundly thrammed across the very same media. The idea was bad enough, but there was another subliminal element boding ill: the new name of internet.org sounds doom-laden.

In the dotcom business, Free Basics was preceded by Freebase, a user-generated, user-structured knowledge system which used to suck up already existing databases on the Web and had users making sense of it by creating semantic links between data units. A fine idea, much finer than Free Basics (which is just a business plan for sucking up what you can’t have), it was born in 2007, went belly up in 2014 and its knowledge assets were absorbed into the Wikia system this year.

What’s with these names? Are the promoters too young to hear the distant echo of ‘freebasing’, the 20th century tribal practice which became the bizarre nadir of American cocaine culture? Freebasing took all of Santana’s teeth, and almost took the comedian Richard Pryor’s life, and then he turned it into a black joke (see youtube.com/watch?v=5Kr0TnhToek). How easily the world forgets the liveliest aspects of popular culture.

After the tremendous schmoozefest attended by prime minister Narendra Modi in Palo Alto, one would scarcely have expected Facebook’s first big push in India to face such heavy weather. But the social media giant felt so ambattled that someone bunged in a script asking US users to support Free Basics in India. There was no support from the Indian government, which has developed problems of its own since the dalliance in Sili Valley. The latest is the urgency to suspend Kirti Azad for anti-Jaitley activities.

Before that — and before the parliament session ended and it became safe to suspend MPs — in a fit of pique, finance minister Arun Jaitley went and sued Arvind Kejriwal for defamation. For Rs 10 crore cheap. Jaitley has chosen to ignore the invitation by Kirti Azad in the Wikileaks4India video, which has been travelling on social media: “I defy you to file a defamation case against me.” Of course, in the same video, Jaitley says: “Many things I have chosen to ignore (sic).” This was after he had asserted himself: “I am conducting this meeting!” and Azad had responded: “I have no faith in you!”

The video is from the annual general meeting of the Delhi District Cricket Association of 2011-12, which sounds drearily like the meet of any residents’ welfare association or housing society. The familiar gripes and peeves, dark allusions about siphoning and outrage about the tea bill (here, represented by entertainment bills in the Rs 20 crore range.). But generally, while the allegations may be of comical amplitude, the adept generally finds a kernel of truth.

This kernel is what Jaitley fails to repudiate in the video which was aired at Azad’s press conference. He and his colleague Sameer Bahadur deny that they are bringing charges against any individual (Poetically put: “We are neither with either/or survivor, only with cricket.”), but insist that corruption has flourished under Jaitley’s aegis. And then Azad asks a specific question about the existence or otherwise of a “financial manual” for dealing with assets worth “Rs 28 crore”. It goes unanswered.

This week, Azad reiterated his plea to be sued, again to no avail. He will never get satisfaction. While the law takes its leisurely course, the issue will be swept off the radar by the mother of all distractions — the game of odds and evens which is about to break out in Delhi, and Narendra Modi’s Lahore blitz.

Someday, someone will study the electronic news traffic since Kejriwal announced his plan to specifically irritate the car-borne classes. The graphs would surge wildly for and against the motion initially, like on a Times Now debate, and then settle down to a placidly, nobly pessimistic plane at the end of the year, like a parliamentary TV show. Steps to reduce use of the internal combustion motor are inevitable, and the brouhaha to come will focus attention on the issue. But the steps must be sensibly graduated, or they would inflict hardships arbitrarily. Kejriwal’s odds and evens is no less arbitrary than Ajit’s “laal batti on off.”

The last time Delhi tried to clear the air was with the imposition of CNG on commercial transport. It was necessary and inevitable, just like curbs on car use, but then too there was this frightful urgency to meet a court deadline. CNG was enforced with almost no CNG filling stations in the capital, and drivers queued overnight for fuel. Deferring the step by six months while infrastructure caught up would have spared the public some drama.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

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