It is usual for Pakistani mobile phone companies to offer special data bundles with unlimited usage of specific internet services (such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc.) at a fairly low fixed price. Or even worse, they offer free unlimited usage of a specific service (such as Free Basics or internet.org). This is now not possible in India.
Details about India’s Ban on Facebook Free Basics
The Indian Telecom regulator has banned Internet.org, deeming the limited data service as discriminatory and against the principles of net-neutrality. With this development, Facebook’s Free Basics — a project that was designed to offer developing markets free access to certain (albeit limited) websites — is banned in the world’s second largest country.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) said that its decision is based on feedback from eight service provider associations, 15 service providers, 42 organisations and institutions, and a limited number of individuals.
TRAI said that the decision is an effort to ensure that service providers will keep the internet open and non-discriminatory.
In Pakistan, Telenor and Zong are offering Free Basics to allow their customers free access to selected websites, while all of five operators offer special bundles (read discriminatory tariffs) for selected services.
We take a look at why this may be counterproductive in the long run.
Here’s Why Facebook Free Basics are Discriminatory
To understand that why TRAI has classified Free Basics or special bundles as discriminatory, let us take a look at the following scenarios:
- You are a small internet company and you run a social networking website. Now since Facebook is so huge, influential and has access to every officer in your country, it shouldn’t mean that 35 million Pakistanis be given free access to Facebook via free bundles but have to pay to visit your website. Doing so gives an unfair advantage to Facebook. Its discrimination plain and simple, and an unjustified practice.
- You possess a political viewpoint that’s not carried by news websites affiliated with Free Basics. But then there’s another politician who is covered by BBC or other websites that are part of Free Basics, thus giving them an unfair advantage because their message is freely promoted across the country while you’re not given the same opportunity.
- You own a job portal website such as Rozee.PK. Now ideally, you wouldn’t want to be in a situation where another job portal is favored and offered to millions of users for free with Free Basics, and Rozee.PK isn’t even included in the list.
- More frustrating would be the fact that you can’t partake in the program because Facebook has the authority to approve or disapprove your application. What if the fate of anyone’s application was decided by a manager who, God forbid, didn’t like your accent or something?
We aren’t even talking about privacy issues or problems pertaining to control over billions of users’ mindset that could be manipulated by a single entity. Many think that that’s too much if control is given to one elite group of service providers.
In all fairness, those who support Free Basics believe that this way Facebook and mobile phone companies are trying to offer internet to the under-privileged class and making them realize the benefits that the Internet can offer.
But one also has to consider the other costs — by giving unfair advantage to Facebook and selected service providers — against such limited access to fully comprehend the cons and pros of Free Basics or special bundle offers for selected services.
We’ve seen countries like China, Japan and India prioritizing their local industry over international ones, and that has, in turn, enhanced their GDP. A ‘free’ service like Facebook Free Basics doesn’t afford that opportunity to home-grown startups and companies, hurting developing countries in the interim as well as the long run.
We believe Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has a case here to look into and follow a more structured and organized approach towards net-neutrality in Pakistan.