No Mr Zuckerberg: India's fight against Facebook

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No, Mr Zuckerberg: India’s fight against Facebook

Not many can fight against powerful companies. Prabir Purkayastha tells the story of Indians who fought against Facebook, for freedom – and won.


Students in Hyderabad protest against Facebook. The yellow sign says: ‘Defend net neutrality’. © Mahesh Kumar/AP Photo

This year Indian activists won. They did not expect this. A group of free-software, net-neutrality and leftist activists stopped Facebook – one of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley – introducing its Free Basics platform in India.

They have already introduced Free Basics successfully in 37 countries. It offers a few websites for free and blocks the rest of the internet. TRAI (the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India supported the activists. They said the Free Basics platform (that some telecom companies - or 'telcos' - offer as partners with Facebook) is discriminatory.

Facebook earns more money than three-quarters of the countries in the world. So they did not like losing. It was worse because CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally led the very big, expensive ($60-million) advertising campaign for Free Basics in India.

The message of the campaign was this: Mark Zuckerberg, to help the Indian poor, was offering a free, basic version of the internet. He said that people who did not support this were rich people who did not like the poor and had big ideas about net neutrality. Zuckerberg was in every newspaper and on every TV channel. The question he asked many times was: ‘Isn’t something better than nothing?’

Not free and not basic

The activists answered this question: Facebook calls it ‘Free Basics’, but this does not mean it is free or a basic internet. Free Basics is about 100 services that Facebook and its partners offer - from the nearly billion services on the internet. And it is not free: users pay by giving away their personal data. There is an internet saying: if you are not paying for it, you are the product.

The main idea of the Free Basics battle is net neutrality as a basic principle for a free and open internet.

Almost a billion of the 3.5 billion internet users create content. So about one out of every three and a half users creates content as well as using it. This is possible only if everyone can access all the internet. So anyone, anywhere, can access any site. The internet service providers (ISPs) – generally the telcos (or the cable TV platforms, as in the US) – cannot and should not control which service or site will get access to their subscribers. On a Free Basic platform, Facebook and its telco partners control this.

Content here is not only web pages, but also applications and services the internet offers. Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who first used the phrase ‘net neutrality’, said that we get all the amazing innovation and creativity on the internet because no-one controls it. When companies control access, the telecom and cable companies will start to charge money and control pricing.

Tim Wu left his job in Silicon Valley working with start-up companies because he was so angry that companies sold different ways of blocking or slowing down traffic. He started teaching instead and got in touch with his old professor Lawrence Lessig, who started Creative Commons. They then started the idea net neutrality to regulate the internet.

The first net-neutrality battle was when telcos wanted money from the internet companies to give them access to their subscribers. The new internet companies worked with the internet users to defeat the telcos. Today, telcos eg. AT&T, Vodafone and Airtel, are very big in their markets, but they are not as big or powerful as big internet companies eg. Google and Facebook. Now these companies are discovering how they can have control and they are working with the telcos. For example, Facebook is working with Reliance, the fourth-largest telecom provider in India, to offer Free Basics; in Africa, it is working with Airtel.


India has 125 million Facebook users.

Facebook knows that many people who join platforms like Free Basics think that Facebook is the internet; or that Facebook is all they need. India has 125 million people on Facebook. The US is the biggest market for Facebook. And India is the second-biggest. There will possibly be another 500 million people for Facebook in India in the next decade. So India is Facebook’s biggest target (Facebook is not allowed to work in China where there would be even more people).

As more and more services move to the internet and newspapers close and have online versions instead, the power of the internet monopolies is getting very very big. 1.6 billion people use Facebook; nearly all the 3.5 billion internet users use Google’s search engine or free email. The internet monopolies control how popular other companies are by moving them up or down on a search, or promoting them. Tomorrow, they could decide important political questions by changing a little the algorithms that decide what we see on the platforms.

Net neutrality

It is very important that the activists in India fought against Facebook for a free, open internet, and won.

It is the first fight that a very big internet company has lost; and they lost it after they invested so much effort and money.

There are other fights for net neutrality around the world. It is possible to join all these groups together to make a big popular movement against the new model of ‘surveillance capitalism’. This form of capitalism works by changing personal data (which was not included before in capitalism) into a commodity, and creating new ways of controlling people by using this data.

The internet monopolies want to destroy the power of all state institutions. The Washington Consensus is changing into the Washington-Silicon Valley Consensus. Tech companies will solve all the problems of the world – if we connect our toasters and washing machines to the internet, and give them all our data. The World Economic Forum at Davos said that if we make machines intelligent, we will have the fourth industrial revolution. People who control the platforms on the internet will be between us and this world; they will control what we see, buy or learn. The fight for a free and a democratic internet is just a small battle in the much bigger battle we need to fight against the new Washington-Silicon Valley Consensus.

Prabir Purkayastha is vice-president of the Free Software Movement of India. More of his work:

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).