In the September 17 issue of the New York Times, Manu Joseph argues that the Modi government has been “Protecting the Internet, but Depriving India’s Poor.”
Joseph highlights the fact that about three out of four Indians have never accessed the Internet because they cannot afford to pay for an Internet connection—even though a very large percentage of less affluent Indians do have mobile phones.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg introduced what he framed as a solution to this problem:
“In February, Facebook and its partners introduced Internet.org in India, a diminished but free Internet for the more than 100 million mobile subscribers of Reliance Communications. . . . So, millions of Indians now have access, in seven languages, to dozens of websites and applications, including BBC News, Wikipedia and, of course, Facebook.”
That “solution” created something of a firestorm because it introduced “post-imperial” elements into what was already a complicated and ongoing national issue.
Within India, much of the available bandwidth is already being consumed by the minority—which in India still amounts to several hundred millions of people—who have Internet access. Those users and the businesses with commercial interests in serving their needs are concerned that broader access to the Internet will almost certainly create an unmanageable volume of users.
In addition, although Facebook has no commercial agreements with the sites that it now makes available to subscribers of Reliance Communication, several other Indian companies have “tried to introduce a service that would make it free or cheap or faster for people to gain access to some applications that have a commercial agreement with the operator.”
Although Joseph ultimately frames his observations in a very partisan way, he then explains how efforts to commercially limit Internet access in India have been conflated with efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to begin charging high-volume sites proportionately for the traffic that they generate:
“There is a global movement against strategies that corrupt the open nature of the Internet, and Indians joined the lament. The movement ended up including Internet for the poor among the offending telecom strategies. This was a flawed, principled stand. And it fit well in the history of the Indian elite deploying ideology to the detriment of the poor–central planning instead of a market economy, a focus on higher education over primary education and rocket science over virology.”
And, despite his obvious partisanship, Joseph does very pointedly highlight the contradictions in some of the arguments against broader Internet access for poorer Indians:
“The elite Indian condemnation of Internet for the poor is cloaked in righteous objections. For instance, that it is ‘’restrictive,’’ thereby violating the fundamental spirit of the web. But Internet.org is limited because data is expensive, not because it promotes some websites over others. In fact, it is paid Internet that is restrictive because it denies the web to those who cannot pay.”
And Joseph does present a very succinct case for why Facebook’s initiative is not simply a front for some sort of more self-serving, if not pernicious, corporate agenda:
“Mr. Zuckerberg has been at pains to tell Indians that his offer of free Internet to the poor does not violate any ethics. Facebook does not charge for any application that wishes to be on Internet.org, and it does not post ads on the Facebook pages of the users. Also, the company does not pay Reliance to provide the free service. Mr. Zuckerberg has said that any telecom operator would be allowed to carry Internet.org. A Facebook spokesman told me, ‘’We are actively in discussions with other mobile phone operators in India.’”
Nonetheless, Joseph cannot deny that the global political dominance of the U.S. and the global presence of U.S. corporations does raise concerns that Facebook’s role in expanding Internet access in India will inevitably increase the corporate reach of Facebook and the expand the influence of U.S. culture.
But, he offers several pithy rejoinders to those concerns:
“Many are ignorant because they never had the opportunities, like being connected, to be informed”
“The history of modern India is proof that corporate self-interest is often more useful to society than altruism.”
Joseph concludes: “Mr. Modi, instead of banishing Internet.org, may consider uploading government websites on it. Facebook is discussing that possibility with his team.”