Nikhil Pahwa has been at the forefront of the fight against Facebook’s Free Basics in India through savetheinternet.in. Here he speaks to Shruti Dhapola on latest developments in the controversy that has gripped the Indian web space again in the past couple of weeks. Excerpts from a telephonic interview:
Q: Would you say that Net Neutrality debate in India has become only about Facebook? And why?
Facebook has bought it upon themselves with the kind of attempts, advertising we’ve seen. There are concerns about how Facebook is attempting to influence public policy. We’ve seen people from the entertainment industry, academics, startups come out and speak at what is clearly an attempt on Facebook’s part to control the content that users can access.
Q: One of Facebook’s arguments for Free Basics is that people who get online via their app, do move on to the paid, complete Internet and thus they are helping more people get online. How would you counter this claim from Facebook?
Facebook on its part has been spreading misinformation with its campaign about Free Basics. Free Basics from what we have seen was marketed to the urban youth as ‘free net’. Why are existing users who already have a data connection getting access to Free Basics? Focus was on helping Reliance gain customers.
Q: Do you think a more lenient approach towards zero-rating platforms would be dangerous for India’s internet growth? And why?
The big hand in this is of the telecom operators, who’ve been suspiciously silent in the debate this time around. The problem with a zero-rating app is that they are in violation of Net Neutrality and give telecom operators the power to define winners and losers. Telcos have a limited license to use the public resource called spectrum and they can’t put restrictions on what users can and can’t access by adding differential pricing.
Differential pricing puts telecom operators between customers and services and then customers will think twice before visiting a website where data charges apply.
Q: How urgent do you think it is for the regulator to take a stand on the issue, and why?
TRAI should have take a decision by July. They got over a million replies from users when the first paper was put out by TRAI and I believe a policy should have been finalised.
The fight for Free Internet is not over yet. We feel the Net Neutrality debate will continue well into 2016 and TRAI’s new Chairman appears to be take a more cautious approach. The issue of licensing of voice-calls from WhatsApp, Skype, etc and other instant messaging services that compete directly with services from telecos will come up once again in 2016.
It’s all or nothing with Net Neutrality. What we need in India is more competition for the Internet to grow, not to split it into groups. We need more broadband, more ISPs to ensure better competition and services for India’s users.
Q: What are the alternatives to the zero-rating platforms that would serve Indian Internet users better?
Alternatives to zero-ratings are there. Aircel for instance is providing free Internet access at 64kb/s to all users for three months, and from what they’ve said the free bit applies to all websites. The Mozilla Foundation is also offering something similar in Bangladesh by introducing its FireFox phones which offer free internet to users.