A few days ago, I was in Bangalore, a city in southern India and capital of the state of Karnataka. I happened to read a print newspaper there in Bangalore after many days. The hectic life in Pune does not allow me to have this luxury.
What grabbed my attention was the huge ads put up by Facebook on the every alternate page that I opened. The ads were sentimental, telling how lives of poor could change if internet.org exists. A lot of debate is happening around this issue and many have started raising their voices. Mark came ahead and wrote editorial for an English newspaper to explain his vision and thoughts.
On one side, the picture created by proponents of internet.org is touching: farmers would get to know weather alerts and other useful information which they presently are deprived of. We have reached a stage where internet is a basic need; at least in cities. On the other hand, this model has multiple disadvantages including the power to skew the opinions of a large chunk of population.
Considering both the sides, how is one going to conclude which is the correct option?
Some questions are worth pondering upon. Why do we need Facebook or some private mobile service provider to provide free useful information? Cannot our government do that? I understand that internet is a tool and necessity and access to internet can significantly impact the lives. But I cannot understand Facebook taking up the initiative on their shoulders; unless there is some hidden agenda. If someone has to take the responsibility of providing free internet access to basics, it should be the government. There will be a huge debate around what are the basic needs. Is access to news a basic need? It could be; but the question is, who promises that the news media which are provided free of charge do not propagate some agenda?
In this particular case, Facebook certainly has the power to improve lives but it equally has the power to bias people and their opinions. Who is going to be the watchdog? Of course, none like a watchdog exists.
The underlying principle is: the medium should always be neutral and should not favour any particular offering. Internet is a medium and hence, it should not favour particular sites or services.
Another question worth asking, what will Facebook and Reliance will get if this thing works out?
- Facebook will get millions of new users and power to influence their political and financial choices.
- They will also be able to capture a lot of information about these people, their habits and things they like or dislike which can be sold to companies who have offerings for the bottom of the pyramid.
- Reliance might attract a large number of customers who will migrate just to avail free Facebook.
- A huge data about how Indian market will evolve during coming years will be made available.
One must take efforts to realise, that nothing is free today. Things which are labelled as free are probably the costliest ones- they take away your information. Considering this, is internet.org really free? Certainly, these giants have more to gain than lose if this happens.
Another often missed aspect of this issue is, those who are talking about it are not the ones who will be using it. We do not know if the poor Indian wants free Facebook or net neutrality. I feel, somewhere, we have taken it for granted that the ones who are going to get affected by this have no locus standi in the entire debate. It would be really insightful if someone asks the poor people whether they want to something like this or not. And suppose, if they say, yes, they are absolutely eager to use, is it right to do so?
I think it would be still unfair. Why poor, even well earning members of the society will drool over free access to Facebook or any other internet community for that matter. That doesn’t mean it is a right thing to do.
I personally feel we should be most careful about influencing people and their thoughts is concerned. Influenced minds could be the best agents of change or worst weapons we ever see. To conclude, no information is better than the partial information.
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