Free Basics : Mutually Beneficial Benevolence Or A Gilded Cage
One of the last controversies of 2015 and the first one in the New Year was around Free Basics. After the harsh reception that Internet.Org faced Facebook rebranded the system Internet.org and tried to release it using an advertising campaign, sugar coated survey and a duplicitous email spam (through its users) aimed at TRAI. The results were even more bad publicity, loss of face and a sharp reprimand by TRAI.
On the upside, Internet.org does provide free internet access to a host of pre-approved websites to anyone and everyone at anytime and anywhere potentially allowing a huge amount of underprivileged people access to the storehouses of knowledge. The downside is that as in any business, even gifts are strategic in nature. Free basic does not support Google or Youtube or any of Facebook’s rivals and all traffic is routed through Facebook servers giving them access to customer data. Additionally, Facebook sets the terms and conditions and decides who is allowed on the platform, while they will definitely follow an open door policy for developers, competitors will definitely feel vary about supplying data to their competitors and what’s to say Facebook won’t block the competitors with red tape later on. Thus, the internet united to prevent this threat.
Google sensing an opportunity (and benefitting from second movers advantage) opted instead to offer free Wifi at select railway stations with the option of expanding the network if they can come up with an appropriate revenue model.
Why Google gave free full access instead of limited access like Facebook is up for speculation but one of the reason could be the fundamental difference in their services. Google provides information, be it web searches or maps and provides a wide host of services like Gmail (62% market share in 2011) and Google Now. They also sell ad space in their search engine and use customer search data to make profiles. Google stands to benefit no matter how you log on to the net, it will be either providing you the service or collecting data or showing ads. Facebook is not that lucky because apart from Whatsapp, it stands to gain only if users are actually using the Facebook app and so needs to be restrictive in order to make the deal mutual beneficial.
Personally, I feel that Free Basics represents a new business model that companies can try to win customers. A company like Flipkart can offer free internet to their customers to increase the amount of time spent on their site and thus improve sales, Times of India can use this to improve free news to its clients and thus improve its readership and thus ad revenue (Currently TOI offers its e-paper for free while Business Standard follows a subscription model, which proves that businesses may choose not to offer a free version if they sufficiently believe in their paid model)
I would like to conclude by saying that while net neutrality is an important basic right, the internet represents a scarce and vital resource akin to land. Companies invest a lot in Search Engine Optimization and digital marketing in order to solidify their internet presence and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to offer free services in order to woo customers.