Free Basics misleading, flawed: IIT, IISc faculty

The clamour for the need to protect net neutrality at all costs has gone fiercer since Facebook’s Free Basics ad campaign began its multiple-full-page broadsheet mainlines assault. Some of the latest to add their voices against Free Basics are PayTM and IAMAI, whose support, together, is crucial because it traverses a huge number of consumers on digital, and virtually every important professional in the digital and online space in India.

Only one more day to sign the petition to put paid to Free Basics for good in India. Sign it here

One particularly liked the tellingly, cuttingly worded statement that 50 faculty members of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc) released about “Facebook’s mis-leading and flawed Free Basics proposal”, describing it as something that will “lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their own public utility.”

Here’s the complete joint statement:

Joint statement rejecting Facebook’s misleading and flawed ‘Free Basics’ proposal

Allowing a private entity

  • to define for Indian Internet users what is ‘basic’,
  • to control what content costs how much, and
  • to have access to the personal content created and used by millions of Indians

is a lethal combination which will lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their own public utility, the Internet. Facebook’s ‘free basics’ proposal is such a lethal combination, having several deep flaws, beneath the veil of altruism wrapped around it in TV and other media advertisements, as detailed below.

Flaw 1: Facebook defines what is ‘basic’.

The first obvious flaw in the proposal is that Facebook assumes control of defining what a ‘basic’ service is. They have in fact set up an interface for services to ‘submit’ themselves to Facebook for approval to be a ‘basic’ service. This means: what are the ‘basic’ digital services Indians will access using their own air waves will be decided by a private corporation, and that too one based on foreign soil. The sheer absurdity of this is too obvious to point out.

To draw an analogy, suppose a chocolate company wishes to provide ‘free basic food’ for all Indians, but retains control of what constitutes ‘basic’ food – this would clearly be absurd. Further, if the same company defines its own brand of ‘toffee’ as a ‘basic’ food, it would be doubly absurd and its motives highly questionable. While the Internet is not as essential as food, that the Internet is a public utility touching the lives of rich and poor alike cannot be denied. What Facebook is proposing to do with this public utility is no different from the hypothetical chocolate company. In fact, it has defined itself to be the first ‘basic’ service, as evident from Reliance’s ads on Free Facebook. Now, it will require quite a stretch of imagination to classify Facebook as ‘basic’. This is why Facebook’s own ad script writers have prompted Mr. Zuckerberg to instead make emotional appeals of education and healthcare for the poor Indian masses; these appeals are misleading, to say the least.

Flaw 2: Facebook will have access to all your apps’ contents.

The second major flaw in the model, is that Facebook would be able to decrypt the contents of the ‘basic’ apps on its servers. This flaw is not visible to the lay person as it’s a technical detail, but it has deep and disturbing implications. Since Facebook can access un-encrypted contents of users’ ‘basic’ services, either we get to consider health apps to be not basic, or risk revealing health records of all Indians to Facebook. Either we get to consider our banking apps to be not ‘basic’, or risk exposing the financial information of all Indians to Facebook. And so on. This is mind boggling even under normal circumstances, and even more so considering the recent internal and international snooping activities by the NSA in the US.

Flaw 3: It’s not free.

The third flaw is that the term ‘free’ in ‘free basics’ is a marketing gimmick. If you see an ad which says ‘buy a bottle of hair oil, get a comb free’, you know that the cost of the comb is added somewhere. If something comes for free, its cost has to appear somewhere else. Telecom operators will have to recover the cost of ‘free basic’ apps from the non-free services (otherwise, why not make everything free?). So effectively, whatever Facebook does not consider ‘basic’ will cost more.

If Facebook gets to decide what costs how much, in effect Indians will be surrendering their digital freedom, and freedom in the digital economy, to Facebook. So this is not an issue of elite Indians able to pay for the Internet versus poor Indians, as Facebook is trying to portray. It is an issue of whether all Indians want to surrender their digital freedom to Facebook.

That the ‘Free Basics’ proposal is flawed as above is alarming but not surprising, for it violates one of the core architectural principles of Internet design: net neutrality. Compromising net neutrality, an important design principle of the Internet, would invariably lead to deep consequences on people’s freedom to access and use information. We therefore urge that the TRAI should support net neutrality in its strongest form, and thoroughly reject Facebook’s ‘free basics’ proposal.

Signed by:

  1. Krithi Ramamritham, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  2. Bhaskaran Raman, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  3. Siddhartha Chaudhuri, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  4. Ashwin Gumaste, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  5. Kameswari Chebrolu, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  6. Uday Khedker, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  7. Madhu N. Belur, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay
  8. Mukul Chandorkar, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay
  9. Amitabha Bagchi, Associate Professor, CS&E, IIT Delhi
  10. Vinay Ribeiro, Associate Professor, CS&E, IIT Delhi
  11. Niloy Ganguly, Professor, CS&E, IIT Kharagpur
  12. Animesh Kumar, Assistant Professor, EE, IIT Bombay
  13. Animesh Mukherjee, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Kharagpur
  14. Subhashis Banerjee, Professor, CSE, IIT Delhi
  15. Shivaram Kalyanakrishnan, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  16. Saswat Chakrabarti, Professor, GSSST, IIT Kharagpur
  17. H.Narayanan, Professor, EE, I.I.T Bombay
  18. Vinayak Naik, Associate Professor, CSE, IIIT-Delhi
  19. Aurobinda Routray, Professor, EE, IIT Kharagpur
  20. Naveen Garg, Professor, IIT Delhi
  21. Amarjeet Singh, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIIT-Delhi
  22. Purushottam Kulkarni, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  23. Supratik Chakraborty, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  24. Kavi Arya, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  25. Akshay, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  26. Jyoti Sinha, Visiting Faculty, Robotics, IIIT Delhi
  27. Joydeep Chandra, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Patna
  28. Parag Chaudhuri, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  29. Rajiv Raman, Assistant Professor, IIIT-Delhi
  30. Mayank Vatsa, Associate Professor, IIIT-Delhi
  31. Anirban Mukherjee, Associate Professor, EE, IIT Kharagpur
  32. Pushpendra Singh, Associate Professor, IIIT-Delhi
  33. Partha Pratim Das, Professor, CSE, IIT Kharagpur
  34. Dheeraj Sanghi, Professor, IIIT Delhi
  35. Karabi Biswas, Associate Professor, EE, IIT Kharagpur
  36. Bikash Kumar Dey, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay
  37. Mohammad Hashmi, Assistant Professor, ECE, IIIT Delhi
  38. Venu Madhav Govindu, Assistant Professor, EE, IISc Bengaluru
  39. Murali Krishna Ramanathan, Assistant Professor, CSA, IISc Bangalore
  40. Sridhar Iyer, Professor, IIT Bombay
  41. Sujay Deb, Assistant Professor, ECE, IIIT Delhi
  42. Virendra Sule, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay
  43. Om Damani, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  44. V Rajbabu, Assistant Professor, EE, IIT Bombay
  45. Hema Murthy, Professor, CSE, IIT Madras
  46. Anupam Basu, Professor, CSE, IIT Kharagpur
  47. Sriram Srinivasan, Adjunct Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay
  48. K.V.S. Hari, Professor, ECE, IISc, Bengaluru
  49. Ashish Mishra, CSA IISc , Bangalore


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