Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ is an instrument of mass surveillance

Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ is an instrument of mass surveillance

By ANUPAM SARAPH | PUNE | 16 January, 2016
It violates the idea of swarajya, or self-rule, that was integral to India’s freedom struggle.
Facebook’s Free Basics destroys swarajya and is much more dangerous than the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) Prism Project, which was exposed by Edward Snowden. It highlights the absence of policy to prevent harvesting user data and creation of large central databases, causing grave compromise of swarajya and breaches of national security, requiring the urgent attention of the Prime Minister.
 
SWARAJYA
The idea of swarajya, or self rule, has been central to India’s struggle for Independence. Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak famously proclaimed swarajya as his birthright, and vowed to struggle till he obtained it. The idea of swarajya is, however, not merely an expression of support for representational democracy. Henry David Thoreau’s idea of self-government imagines individual self government where women and men are largely free of the state. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Self-government means continuous effort to be independent of government control, whether it is foreign government or whether it is national.”
The idea of swarajya suggests that governance cannot be proxied away by anyone, through any mechanisms, or for any reasons. The idea of swarajya is not limited to a nation, it is universal for every community and individual.
The purpose of swarajya has been to ensure surajya, or good governance. The Constitution of India promised us swarajya to ensure a surajya with justice, equality, fraternity and liberty to all. In order to deliver the promise of the Constitution, implicit in requiring swarajya for surajya, is providing the ability to those governed to choose the mechanisms of governance that will ensure swarajya is never compromised and to bring justice, equality, fraternity and liberty to all. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “If swarajya was not meant to civilise us, and to purify and stabilise our civilisation, it would be worth nothing.”
When any state, corporate or individual covertly or overtly assaults swarajya, the community loses its independence. Sadly, modern times and instruments of governance have more than one example of the destruction of swarajya. 
 
DESTRUCTION OF SWARAJYA BY STATES
On 6 June 2013, the Guardian and the Washington Post published stories about a clandestine surveillance program under the United States National Security Agency (NSA), operating from 2007, that collected internet communications from at least nine major US internet companies. Codenamed PRISM, it accounted for 91% of all NSA traffic obtained under US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court, or FISC) pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). 
Despite widespread international shock, disbelief and condemnation, PRISM has been justified as a means to obtain foreign intelligence. William Binney, the former technical director of the NSA’s Analytic Services Office, states, “Bulk data over-collection from internet and telephony networks undermines security and has consistently resulted in loss of life in my country and elsewhere, from the 9/11 attacks to date.”
PRISM is self-defeating, for it violates the very idea of swarajya in the name of protecting it. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “Swarajya is the abandonment of the fear of death. A nation which allows itself to be influenced by the fear of death cannot attain swarajya, and cannot retain it if some-how attained.” Again as he said, “Good government is no substitute for self-government.”
Top secret slides released by the Guardian indicate the surveillance program collected data from popular service providers including Facebook. Zuckerberg had come up with strong denials of Facebook’s involvement in the project after the release of the story.
Economic pragmatism and technology are hollow arguments to protect any instruments that threaten swarajya. As any wise leader of a democracy must know, any mechanisms of governance that threaten swarajya cannot yield surajya. 
While fundamentally, PRISM violates swarajya in the United States and every country it spies on, several lawsuits have been filed in American courts for the violation of civil liberties. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Yale Law School filed a lawsuit against the NSA citing that PRISM violates Americans’ constitutional rights of free speech, association, and privacy and constitutes surveillance in violation of the First and Fourth Amendments to the American Constitution. Freedom Watch USA filed a Class action lawsuit against government bodies and officials believed to be responsible for PRISM, and 12 companies (including Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Skype and their chief executives), who have been disclosed as providing or making available mass information about their users’ communications and data to the NSA under the PRISM program or related programs. 
Freedom Works filed a suit alleging that President Barack Obama, James R. Clapper, as Director of National Intelligence, Keith B. Alexander, as Director of the NSA, James B. Comey, as Director of the FBI, are violating the Fourth Amendment of the United States by collecting phone metadata.
Salman Khurshid, then the UPA government’s Minister for External Affairs, had defended the PRISM program in July 2013 by saying, “This is not scrutiny and access to actual messages. It is only computer analysis of patterns of calls and emails that are being sent. It is not actually snooping specifically on content of anybody’s message or conversation. Some of the information they got out of their scrutiny, they were able to use it to prevent serious terrorist attacks in several countries.” His colleague, Kapil Sibal, then the IT Minister, was more guarded, saying little was known about the nature of data sought by PRISM. Sadly, neither even recognised that this was a violation of swarajya. 
 
DESTRUCTION OF SWARAJYA BY ­PRIVATE ENTITIES
Facebook’s Free Basics has an architecture that is similar to that of PRISM. It harvests the data of all transactions on all websites served through it. Like PRISM, it is an instrument of mass surveillance. Unlike PRISM, which was a state driven project, this is a privately run PRISM program.
You cannot redirect people to another site when you load your service on Free Basics. So not only is all the data of every transaction on Free Basics captured by internet.org, it also prohibits access to the much larger worldwide web. In a stroke of evil genius masquerading as providing free “internet” to the deprived, Free Basics takes away the swarajya of every nation it strikes.
As pointed out by many readers of The Sunday Guardian’s story on the implications to national security (‘Free Basics’ is a threat to national security, 10 January), Free Basics is more dangerous than PRISM for several reasons. First, the companies serving their websites through the Free Basics platform are actually bound by the End User License Agreement (EULA) they sign. They, therefore, have no recourse to legal remedy of any acts done by Facebook and third parties, who may subject the data they collect from websites served through Free Basics to compromise their business advantage to those favoured by Facebook. Second, the individuals who access websites served through Free Basics are also governed by the EULA they sign and forfeit any legal recourse to abuse of the privacy or security of individuals, groups or entire countries. Third, Facebook is a private entity that is not answerable to those other than their shareholders. Fourth, Zuckerberg is the single largest shareholder and carries the last word. Fifth, the data will be available to the highest bidders for any purpose they may wish to subject it to. Unlike a PRISM program, that professed to aid the state against terrorism, this could end up aiding terrorist groups against the state. Sixth, even if Facebook feigns innocence and claims it has no evil motives, the availability of such data on its servers is subject to both insider and outsider misuse. Seventh, the marginalising of the internet by a private corporation to serve a few websites of its choice destroys the swarajya of the internet, dubbed as net-neutrality by Tim Wu. It no longer allows every website to be served with equal access to everyone. Eight, by monopolising the network of communications and mining all transactions that happen on it for use by the highest bidders, Free Basics destroys swarajya of the people and nations it strikes. 
Free Basics, then, takes over the people’s ability to make their own choices, not just about the websites they visit, the e-commerce they engage in, but also those of participating in social and political transactions of the nation. It takes over their very ability of self-rule by controlling the services, products, information and access through the vast data it collects to alter service delivery, security and well being of a nation. Free Basics does not provide justice, equality, fraternity and liberty, it destroys it. The Trojan Horse, worshipped for shallow benevolence of the conqueror, destroys the nations that succumb to the greed of free over swarajya.
The question raised by Free Basics is not a shallow discourse about “haves” and “wants” of digital access. It is no longer just an issue of net-neutrality to enable every website to have equal opportunity of being visible on the internet. It is now an issue of swarajya and national security.
Moreover, it has brought into sharp focus serious questions around the lack of policy to prevent harvesting user data or the creation of large centralised databases with sensitive information about the people, assets and transactions of a nation. While databases are part of life that we cannot live without in a modern world, the increasing creation and use of large linked and centralised data warehouses creates a threat that this data may be misused by unspecified persons or organisations. 
It brings into focus, how ignorance or neglect of individual privacy, liberty, equality and justice causes erosion of national security. Economic pragmatism and technology are hollow arguments to protect any instruments that threaten swarajya. 
As any wise leader of a democracy must know, any mechanisms of governance that threaten swarajya cannot yield surajya. A wise government must put an end to all mechanisms and large, centralised or linked databases that are Trojan Horses waiting to destroy swarajya. 
The common man’s hope to justice, equality, fraternity and liberty rest in swarajya. All wise leaders of democracies must unequivocally strike down all instruments, including Free Basics that are assaulting swarajya in India.
@AnupamSaraph 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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