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Why I Think Free Basics Should Not Be Banned In India

By Amitabh Kumar

free basics facebookEveryone should have free and easy access to the Internet. Yes, we should! But we don’t. As per internetlivestats.com, at this moment India has over 344 million Internet users. That number will probably be a couple of hundreds more by the time you read this article as the ticker is moving fast. With a click of a button, over 344 million people in India can connect with the world. That seems impressive. But is it really?

India’s current population is 1,293,241,856 people (that will also have gone up by a few thousands on IndiaOnlinePages.com by the time this blog is published). That simply means that about 949,107,897 people are still unconnected to Digital India. An overwhelming number of this ‘unconnected’ population is made up of women and senior citizens. So according to the math, it has been 20 years since the Internet was first introduced by VSNL in 1995, and still 85% of the Indian population is unable to use one of the greatest technological and communicational innovation in modern history.

Let me put this in perspective, back in 1995, Virat Kohli was 7 years old. DDLJ was the coolest new movie in theatres. P.V. Narasimha Rao was our prime minister, and Windows 95 ran on our giant PC’s. Yup, since then so much has changed for a ‘few’ of us. Be it in the field of education, health, housing, transportation. Sadly, due to reasons that persist, a majority of Indians were never fully included in this rapid change.

These inequalities continue to grow. Most of India cannot keep up with the modern innovations of the privileged minority of India because they are either unable to afford these changes over other basic necessities, or they are not even aware of the choices available. When it comes to the Internet #FreeBasics is an experiment which might be able to jump across these barriers.

I know you just rolled your eyes when you read the last line, and why won’t you, some of the loudest self-proclaimed ‘protectors’ of the Internet have told you exactly the opposite in the most creative and entertaining manner possible.

But, here are some questions for the critics, the sceptics, and those who believe that Armageddon is just a click away (they were around during the Y2K bug as well, somehow the digital world as we know it did not end on 1st Jan 2000)

1. Have you used Free Basics? It can be used on any mobile phone, just type in www.freebasics.com on your browser.

2. Do you have access to the Internet? As all the opinions, comments, for and against this one are coming from people for whom access to the Internet is a normality.

3. Is there any research available on how Free Basics will affect the Indian population? Or do you possess a crystal ball which helps you see the future of the most dynamic technology and its exact effects on the smartest youngest largest democratic population in the world?

4. How long should a common Indian wait before they can have access to a little bit of the Internet? Another 20 years may be? 10? Because “some” Internet , better than “no” Internet if nobody is willing to guarantee the exact time the voiceless, internet-less population must wait to get free full Internet.

Here are a few reasons why I don’t think we should get TRAI to ban Free Basics:

To start with, if this solution works to provide even .0000000000000000000000001% of the Internet to the 85% of the unconnected people in my country it is worth it. At the very least, it will familiarise them with the Internet and help them form an opinion about this technology. Presently, Internet access is not high on the list of demands of large sections of the Indian population, mainly because they don’t know what they’re missing! If they did, free and full access would be an election issue. Perhaps contrary to predictions, Free Basics could be a nudge in this direction.

Also, efforts are being made to digitalize governance. This can never be successful if we fail to get the masses connected. If social security schemes of the government can be connected through this platform (and I am sure it can be done), it can create a swift, corruption free, hassle-less mechanism for the citizens (like we have done for our passport and pan card applications). Wouldn’t that bring about an unimaginable constructive change in India?

What I stated above is just one idea, but going by the fact that information is empowerment, how can we kill an experiment attempting to spread information for free?

I would like to close my thoughts by just registering my protest against the one-sidedness of this debate. No, I do not mean pro or contra, I mean the fact that all the opinions, editorials, comments are coming from one section of the society, which is super privileged with access to the Internet.

It is the height of hypocrisy, that the same individuals who are making millions today due to the Internet, would not allow others to even use it. Why should 85 % of India only serve as clients to these business owners? If there is an opportunity for 85% of the disconnected Indians today to be business leaders of tomorrow, then why are we acting like a roadblock?

The only reason why I and many like me make our living using the Internet is because back in the day our parents could afford it, our schools informed us about the importance of it, our teachers trained us in using it. Well, most Indian parents can’t afford the Internet, most of the Indian kids have no schools with teachers.

Plus, why are you so scared? We are Indian’s give us a bit and see how we make the most of it, give us a path and we will jump each and every hurdle.

Make the basics free! And see what India can be!

Also read: Facebook’s Free Basics Isn’t About Bringing More People Online, It’s About User Acquisition

You must be to comment.
  1. ravesh

    Doesn't make sense.

  2. Arnika

    Good to read this perspective too. Not sure about Free basics in totality but if in anyway it is helping the communities in India, then we must debate around its pros and cons. Lets not just follow opinions. We all need to read and know more about it. At least to get a clear idea of what exactly it is and what will it do the world.

  3. Arnika

    Good to read the other side too. Not sure about Free Basics in totality but if in anyway it can help the communities in India, why cant we debate around the pros and cons and not just sideline it. Need is to read and know more about it and then frame an opinion.

  4. Kunal D Mehta

    Amitabh, I don't mean to be rude here. But I feel you're not technically qualified enough to understand what's wrong with Free Basics. I would hence kindly ask you to read the technical guidelines and specifications of Free Basics on the official website first. Then watch this video and ask me if you have any questions: http://youtu.be/P5aUSbKjnqI

    1. John Laprise

      Hi Kunal,

      I am technically qualified and Amitabh has done a good job of outlining some of the reasons why Free Basics should not be banned, especially from the point of view of the Unconnected. https://gildshire.com/post/4968/network-neutrality-indianstyle-the-connected-vs-the-unconnected

  5. Amitabh

    Dear Kunal, thanks for presuming my technical qualifications, and well done on the self promotion. Your video talks about how Free Basics violates Net Neutrality. ( I re read my blog to see where exactly did I talk about net neutrality ? , and I did not ). Now my qualified friend, I am assuming you are an advance user of the Internet, guessing when you were young, your parents got you a connection, your school told you how important and awesome the internet was. Well Mr Technical, most of the Indians cant afford a connection, nor do they go to school. Plus its been 20 years that they have remained disconnected. This platform which offers super limited access to the Internet is meant for that demographic; so that they get introduced to the concept of the Internet, sure it will increase the Facebook user base, but why do you presume, users who can afford all of the internet, will not change to a paid service ? . Secondly how is FreeBasics stopping any of us for providing Internet for free to India. Their is amazing work happening, and will continue to happen, but getting a government to BAN a service provided by a private company, is certainly not a route we should take. We have Iphones which are amazing, do ' all ' that a mobile phone can & then we have cheap basic phones, which just send sms's and make calls. Should the government BAN them too ? as they do not provide the complete mobile experience ? . Dude, please dont make decisions for others, the poor and the uneducated of my country are super smart and can decide for themselves !

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