‘Free Basics’ is a threat to national security

‘Free Basics’ is a threat to national security

By ANUPAM SARAPH | NEW DELHI | 2 January, 2016
A motorist rides past a billboard displaying Facebook’s Free Basics initiative in Mumbai on Wednesday. REUTERS
Free Basics is no longer a discussion of net neutrality alone. It is a matter of grave national security requiring the attention of the Prime Minister himself.
 
MODERN TROJAN HORSES
If Rupert Murdoch were to offer free newspapers, with news of his choosing only, to the media-deprived millions, would you call it an act of charity? If he were to call it as Free Essentials for the billion deprived of print essentials, should it be considered to be in our national interest? If he were to provide free cable TV, to the cable and education starved billion, with only those channels of his choosing, would you regard it as cable inclusion? If these Free Essentials were to serve the channels of commercial or geo-political interests outside India, should you regard it as a threat to our national security? If these services were to secure government endorsement by serving as a channel for the government, should the head of state regard it as benevolence or be worried about national security in a situation where the power to influence tens of millions vests offshore?
Colonisation no longer requires mortar shells or physical takeover of governments. It requires Trojan Horses in the form of software and ingenuity to control the economic, social and political engines of a country. These Trojan Horses can be more subtle than the newspapers and cable TV channels offered to provide literacy and educate the masses. Even the colonised would sing praises of the oppressor having failed to detect oppression by the Trojan Horse.
Zuckerberg’s Free Basics has exactly the characters of such a Trojan Horse. Through his Free Basics he promises access to websites of his choosing to a billion Indians. In fact access to basics that Government of India has been unable to do for all the decades since Independence. Of course, Zuckerberg would decide what is needed and how to deliver through the companies that have signed up with him. Zuckerberg’s Free Basics would also become the channel for government interaction with the people.
It does not require George Orwell’s vision of 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s dystopia of Brave New World to see what is at play. If this does not worry those charged with national security, nothing will. The nation expects Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ensure the country does not go the way of Egypt or Ukraine
 
ECONOMIC, POLITICAL ESPIONAGE
 
For one, Free Basics is a massive real time data-mining engine. It will harvest data of all the users to the websites served by their platform and collect the information that under any other name, we would not hesitate to call corporate, political or economic espionage. Armed with such information, such entities can now target individuals, the economy, the social fabric and even the politics of the country.
Why would a charitable exercise spend more than a hundred crores in just a few days to convince people it was doing good for them? Why does this charity want to carve out, selectively, the internet rather than enable the whole internet for a few hours a week? If the use of Gmail by government babus is worrisome, the use and penetration of Free Basics into our country should worry India’s leaders even more.
Tim Berners Lee, the man who invented the worldwide web, has the vision of an open and free internet as one of a network of networks linking billions of devices, including all your computers and mobile phones to those of others across the world. He believes that the value of the internet is in the ability of someone to communicate with anyone using any media and any content. In this vision, every person has equal opportunity to interact with anyone on the internet.
This is in stark comparison to Zuckerberg’s vision of internet.org, also called Free Basics, where a few websites of his choosing will be made accessible for free through the internet.org app. The misleading begins, but does not stop at, calling itself internet.org. By slicing the internet, Zuckerberg not just shrinks the economic opportunity for the open internet, but robs it of its audience and equal access for every website on the internet. In this vision, you have the opportunity to interact with those of Facebook’s choosing and be excluded from the rest.
With Free Basics, not only will Zuckerberg be in a position to decide what you consume, but about who delivers. How benevolent is that? It is obvious that any country using this platform is at the very least writing off its trade, commerce and perhaps even manufacturing to a 300 billion dollar foreign entity. Free Basics can, then, actually facilitate for their clients the delivery or non delivery of services to individuals, groups or categories in order to wield economic or political power or to reduce such power from existing governing structures. In one stroke, not only are local businesses wiped off from the economy, but those favoured by such dystopian models get promoted. That is literally destroying the economy of a country with Free Basics.
This time it’s a modern version of the East India Company has put out a Trojan Horse disguised as a charity.
 
GROWING THE INTERNET
The internet has grown because it offers every website an equal opportunity to serve its customer. This agnostic approach to the media and content transported across the network was first described by Prof Tim Wu as “net neutrality”. Had the internet chosen to serve websites selectively, censor, throttle or restrict the media or content transmitted through it, as is being proposed by Free Basics, it would not have grown to the reach it has today. Restrictive business models are not disruptive ones serving the unserved or the underserved. They are destructive.
The internet has become the nervous system of the global economy. If you selectively serve, restrict, censor, throttle or restrict signals passing through your body, it will malfunction, be diseased and die. If you selectively serve, restrict, censor, throttle or restrict signals passing through the internet, it will cause malfunction, disease and death of the economy.
Countries do not need a billionaire’s subsidy, least of all from Zuckerberg, in order to ensure digital access, basics or development. Not only has the internet grown organically on its own in the rich countries, but also in those with low income. India’s story of mobile and internet penetration, even without any subsidy, is more than an impressive one. Just as the internet spread across the world at its own developmental rate, it is important to allow it to spread across the country at its own developmental rate. Accelerating its spread through forcing it into limited channels chosen from afar by huge corporate interests will only result in dystopian models that endanger national security, cause corruption and end net neutrality.
Models like Free Basics also make impossible the likelihood of each website being served equally on the internet, in other words, it destroys net-neutrality. Without net neutrality there is no level playing field. Such models, therefore, destroy the true value of the internet as a level-playing-field. While an OLX may be chosen by Facebook for inclusion in its Free Basics, the reseller from Ratnagiri may not. Without its ability to provide, protect and nourish the level-playing field, the internet would lose its value. Free Basics will ensure the death of the internet as we have known it.
 
NEED FOR GOVERNANCE AND GOVERNMENT
That this matter has resurfaced after a national outcry had made it a matter of grave concern for the Prime Minister. His ministers and concerned departments must learn about net neutrality; else they will have failed to protect public interest and they will have even failed to understand and protect national security. Multinationals like Zuckerberg are making inroads into governance in unprecedented ways through PPP and other Trojan Horses.
R.S. Sharma, now the TRAI Chairperson, was the Secretary of the IT when the controversy broke out. By digging up the issue again he raises serious questions about TRAI’s ability to recognise, understand and protect national security. From the UPA regime, he has a record of designing projects that many allege will harm national security. He was also said to have contracted to foreign corporations issues that are central to national security.
The Competition (Amendment) Act, 2007 prohibits any agreement to produce, supply, distribute, store, acquire or control services, which cause or are likely to cause adverse effect on competition within India. It also prohibits any agreement to produce, supply, distribute, store, sell or price, or trade with a tie-in arrangement, exclusive supply agreement, exclusive distribution agreement, restrict to whom services are sold or from whom services are bought, resale price maintenance if such agreement is likely to cause adverse effect on competition in India. It also prohibits unfair or discriminatory price or condition in purchase of the internet and its services. It prohibits TSPs and ISPs from using their dominant position as TSPs and ISPs to enter into, or protect, other markets like e-commerce, e-banking or other internet based services. The Competition Commission of India, by choosing to be a silent spectator to such an important issue, has raised grave questions about its ability to take suo moto cognisance of matters of such vital national importance.
It can hardly be under-emphasised that leaving the issue to the ministry and babus will cost the country dearly. With national security at stake, it is now for the Prime Minister to protect India from the Trojan Horses and ensure the restructuring of all the ministries and organisations that have failed the country by exposing it to such unprecedented national security lapses. It is regrettable that there is no think tank with the government that has been capable of raising the issues and protecting the nation. This is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to set right the wrongs and emerge as the saviour. After all a leader is one who dares introspect, revise his views, and walk the talk.
 
Dr Anupam Saraph is a Professor, Future Designer, former governance and IT advisor to former Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar and the Global Agenda Councils of the World Economic Forum.
 

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