In that twilight zone between Christmas and the New Year, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chairman of Facebook, was busy penning a letter that many of us would never read.
Free Basics wants to provide free—but limited—internet to people who are not otherwise connected. Zuckerberg’s contention is that internet access can lift people out of poverty. It sounds like a good idea, no?
But clearly a lot of people are against Free Basics. India’s telecom regulatory body (like the U.S. Federal Communications Commission) has asked that the service be stopped. It has received over 750,000 emails through SavetheInternet.in. The emails argue for net neutrality and are opposed to differential pricing for the internet.
Many others have referred to his project as creating a “walled garden” of poor internet for poor people. An article cheekily entitled, “Mark Zuckerberg can’t believe India isn’t grateful for Facebook’s free internet,” explains that the specific websites that people can access is determined by Facebook and its telecom partners, effectively making them gatekeepers to the internet for poor people.
The chief minister of the Indian state of Odisha has said,
“While the underprivileged deserve much more than what is available, nobody should decide what exactly are their requirements. If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their rights to choose what they think is best for them.”
It begs the irreverent question that people think but rarely speak: Why can’t poor people just be grateful?
A few people speak about this but never so blatantly. Sometimes it’s couched as “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It is often from people who think in terms of population-level statistics, and not necessarily in terms of individual rights— “What would be good for society?” versus “What would be good for this person?”
Coincidentally, this view is often from people who have the perfect, already.
India’s rejection of Free Basics comes at a time when global inequality is raging. Oxfam International just released a report saying “the combined wealth of the richest 1 percent will overtake the other 99 percent of people in the next year.” It’s not a very happy outlook: poor people should not take whatever is given to them; they need a voice, not a benefactor.
Even the recent World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends, the World Bank’s annual flagship report, would appear to argue against a “walled garden” for the poor. It writes that, “[with rising inequality] the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received the most benefits –circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.”
This trend in inequality will continue if global aid and philanthropy continue with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, thinking that poor people should just be happy with what they are given.
We’ll see what happens in India, the world’s largest democracy: how does a petition from over 750,000 people —albeit not necessarily the direct constituents (“beneficiaries”) of Free Basics—hold-up against one of the richest men in the world?