Updated: December 25, 2015 8:34:35 pm
With 130 million Indians using it including Prime Minister Modi, Facebook is one of the big consumer brands in India. And to follow the successful Townhall with PM Modi in the Silicon Valley, Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook was in New Delhi on October 28 for another townhall, this time with IIT students, followed by a luncheon round table to which I was invited as well.
Being in the tech sector for several years, I have had my share of encounters with tech billionaires and they tend to be of all types. But this interaction with 31-year-old Mark Zuckerberg was a refreshing mix of candour, humility and clarity of thought. That youngsters see him as a rockstar was clear from a WhatsApp message from my 15-year-old son to me saying he wants to grow and be like ME! So to my son, my meeting Mark was the highlight of my life!
The luncheon roundtable in itself was a high quality interaction and discussion centered around the challenge of connecting billion unconnected Indians, which is key to PM Narendra Modi’s Digital India vision’s success. And topics moved and bounced amongst the future of the Internet, satellite broadband for rural India, privacy and ended up predictably with all three MPs present raising the issue of Net neutrality and Facebook Free Basics.
I used this opportunity to make several points. These included the crucial importance of making Digital India a success and cautioning Facebook and other companies against mistaking the current regulatory vacuum as a business opportunity. I urged Mark to contribute to evolving the regulatory and rules framework since traditionally regulations have always lagged behind the opening of a sector. I firmly reiterated that these regulations must seek to uphold consumer rights, and respect both net neutrality and privacy.
I have to say that Zuckerberg’s candour and forthrightness impressed me. He took direct questions about the position of Facebook on the consumer right issue of net neutrality with clarity and a forthrightness that Indian telcos would do well to follow. He was keenly aware of the net neutrality issue and debate especially the one in India and the petition filed by many lakhs of Indians.
I have to say that I was gratified when he acknowledged that Facebook had made many changes to its Free Basic strategy based on what I had been saying and the debate had thrown up. Good to know that an Indian MP can help change a large International company’s strategy to positively impact the Indian Internet consumer i.e. Digital India.
He recounted how Facebook intended to launch satellites to increase access to Internet in rural areas and had originally intended to do so in India. But overwhelmed by the regulatory and policy complexity in India, had chosen to launch the first satellite in Africa. It’s another issue for Governments policy making to look into as part of its strategy to expand access to the Internet for the billion unconnected Indians.
While its ability to connect billions of Indians resonates with Prime Minister Modi’s Digital India initiative, Indian netizens, myself included, had expressed our objections regarding Facebook’s ‘gatekeeper’ role on Internet.org. But Mark took the specific questions on net neutrality with a refreshing openness and announced the significant changes to Internet.org.
According to Mark, Internet.org, in its newest “Free Basics” avatar, seeks to make the internet accessible to all. He indicated that Free Basics will operate as an open platform with no walls, that Facebook will not selectively choose its content or its carrier, a marked shift from its original version which could have turned /evolved into gate-keeping the Internet. He further clarified very importantly that its zero rating is not a gatekeeping model since it doesn’t involve any payments or commercial quid pro quo from the apps/sites on Free Basics. This clearly and obviously sets it apart from the ‘zero rating’ of Telcos which essentially involves a commercial arrangement with their favoured sites.
I pointed out to him that using the term zero rating to describe both these very different propositions was causing ongoing scepticism about Free Basics despite it now being closer to Net neutrality than ever before. Mark’s comments certainly point to Free Basics being closer to Net neutrality than before and I hope in reality it does reflect that.
As I have said in the past, consumers In India are entitled to a truly open internet without any gatekeepers, as this would lead to the “cabelisation” of the Internet. A truly neutral Internet should have no gatekeepers – and if Free Basics intends to reflective of Indians consumers rights, it must be open and unfettered to all those who wish to make their services online. This is critical for small start-ups and entrepreneurs from all over.
The Government still needs to ensure that its policy on Net Neutrality expressly prevents any attempt by any entity to do so. The focus now shifts to the regulator, TRAI, whose final recommendations on the matter are awaited. We need a strong policy framework to protect net neutrality and to ensure that telecom operators and Internet Service Providers are made to adhere to a list of clearly defined regulations that protect net neutrality.
Companies that are participants in the Digital India vision must wake up to the need to address the rights of Consumers. The conduct of Telecom companies on the issue of call drops and Internet providers on issue of Internet quality and speed are two examples of companies taking consumers for a ride. As Digital India evolves and grows, so will the clamour for a clear set of rights for Consumers ie Digital Indians including Net neutrality and Privacy. Over now to Government and TRAI.
The author is Member of Parliament and a technology entrepreneur. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
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