Thursday, August 24, 2017
Home Tech Digest What’s wrong with Facebook’s Free Basics?

What’s wrong with Facebook’s Free Basics?

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So there are just 1 day left, for you to write to TRAI, to save the internet.

If you are still—despite all those helpful videos by folks like AIB, TVF etc.—wondering what the hullabaloo is all about and why should anyone ‘save’ something as gooey and massive as internet, let me offer you the brass tacks in a language you may understand the most, using Friends.

No, not your friends. But Friends. “We were on a break!”… remember? That Friends. Yes!

Season 4. Episode 3. This was more popular for Chandler—with no pants—getting his hands cuffed by Joanna, to a chair! But, this episode also had an incredibly funny side-plot involving Joey.

Joey is cleaning his patio furniture, in his living room, when a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, played by Penn Jillette, the famous magician and juggler and one half of team Penn & Teller, knocks on his door. Dedicated Friends fans would know the rest, I’m sure, but let me give you the gist. Penn manages to sell Joey a single volume of the encyclopedia set he wanted to sell for $1,200, for a mere $50. It happens to be Volume V (with topics starting with V).

Joey goes on to read that volume and shows off his knowledge using things like volcano, Mount Vesuvius and Vietnam War, when his friends change the subject to a documentary on Korean War and our man is left out of the conversation, as usual.

Watch that segment, here.

This is funny, in true Friends tradition, but I found it to be an interesting, albeit oversimplified premise to explain what Facebook is trying to do with Free Basics.

The whole internet is sort of like the complete set of the encyclopedia. One volume is the rough equivalent of what Facebook is willing to offer free, using its partners’ services.

Facebook’s primary argument to net neutrality activists is, ‘Hey, these people won’t have access to an encyclopedia at all. At least let them have one volume free, will ya?’.

The primary counter to that is, ‘Why not let these people access the complete set for a limited period of time (or unlimited period of time, if the provider can manage that, with or without advertising/partners’ support), instead of offering them a warped—controlled by you—single volume view of the knowledge for an infinite period of time?’.

There are other incidental issues, around data collection, of course, but, in a highly simplified manner, this is the central premise. This is why Facebook has been advertising aggressively too.

Convinced? At least reasonably?

Do head to http://www.savetheinternet.in/ and mail TRAI today. Remember, the last date is December 30, 2015.

Addendum: This is, obviously, a simplified analogy. I could argue the same episode on behalf of Facebook (and Free Basics) too. If I were Facebook, I’d say that Free Basics is not offering one volume of an encyclopedia, but a concise version of the entire encyclopedia. That is, A-Z, but not all topics, only select topics… in one volume.

That is a fairly solid argument too, but for two minor facts.

The people this concise version is being offered to—free of charge, mind you—do not have the power to go for the full version on their own. That is why they opted for the concise version free, in the first place.

And, more importantly, Facebook gets to choose what is selected and dropped, from the full version, into the abridged version. This, from a corporation that is already known for using data in multiple ways (when the service is free, we users are the product being sold, remember!) to sell to advertisers (we agreed to this, no doubt) is a tad too dangerous.

Given the advertising blitzkrieg they have unleashed in India, it is clear that all they want is a billion people on their Free Basics platform, free of charge, and get addicted… so that Facebook has rich data on their usage patterns that it can sell to brands and advertisers. That is a great business model, but it is not altruism, as Facebook wants us to believe.

What’s wrong with business, you ask? Oh nothing, really – but let Facebook call it one and then we can debate more honestly on this topic, right? Also, giving aa curtailed version of the internet to a large set of people who cannot afford to look at alternatives seems more like exploitation, than altruism.

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