Facebook's Free Basics plan: India academics see 'deep flaws'

Mark Zuckerberg Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Facebook rebranded its app as Free Basics in September

A group of leading Indian academics have criticised Facebook's controversial Free Basics internet plan, saying it has "deep flaws".

At least 50 professors of the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science said the plan would curb internet freedom in India.

Facebook wants to provide Indians with free access to a limited number of internet services.

But critics of the Free Basics service say it runs contrary to net neutrality.

India's telecoms regulator recently asked the Indian mobile network that partnered with Facebook to put their Free Basics offer on hold.

Those campaigning to protect net neutrality in India suggest data providers should not favour some online services over others by offering cheaper or faster access.

Supporting the campaign, the academics said in a statement that the Free Basics plan was "a lethal combination which will lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their own public utility, the Internet".

The professors say there are three key problems with Facebook's plans:

  • Facebook assumes control of defining what a "basic" service is.
  • 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.
  • The term "free" in "free basics" is a marketing gimmick. 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.

But Facebook said that it would continue to lobby for its scheme.

"We are committed to Free Basics and to working with [Indian telecom firm] Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected," a spokeswoman said.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Facebook has paid for large adverts in the local press to defend Free Basics

The firm has been publishing full-page advertisements in leading Indian newspapers where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is seen forcefully defending the service.

"In the 21st century, everyone also deserves access to the tools and information that can help them to achieve all those other public services, and all their fundamental social and economic rights. That's why everyone also deserves access to free basic internet services," he said in an appeal published in the Times of India.

'Millions more online'

Facebook launched as a partnership with several mobile operators in emerging economies in 2013 as a means to "introduce people to the benefits of the internet".

The associated app, which provides access to selected services, was renamed as Free Basics earlier this year.

Content includes pages from selected local news and weather forecast providers, the BBC, Wikipedia and various health services.

It is offered in 36 countries and Facebook says it believes more than 15 million people have been brought online who would otherwise not be using the net.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Net neutrality has proved to be a hot topic in India this year

In India, Reliance began offering the scheme in February and then extended it to all its subscribers in November, but it has faced criticism.

Local start-ups complained they risked being disadvantaged because they were not included, and in April several larger groups that had initially signed up to the scheme - including the media conglomerate Times Group and the travel booking site Cleartrip - pulled their services, citing concerns about it failing to provide a "fair, level playing field".

Facebook said it would allow more services to join, but Mr Zuckerberg warned it was "not sustainable to offer the whole internet for free".

The regulator is set to hold a hearing into net neutrality in January.

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