24 Dec 2015

Fixing Facebook’s Internet.org

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but these are my personal thoughts.)

Indian regulators ordered the suspension of Facebook’s Free Basics program, earlier called Internet.org [1], because of concerns about net neutrality.

These concerns are valid. Why was Flipkart included but not Amazon or Snapdeal? One important aspect of net neutrality is that ISPs don’t pick winners behind closed doors, which is exactly what happened here. These decisions should be taken based on published, objective criteria.

Even if Facebook or its carrier partners said that all e-commerce sites are included, that still amounts to an implicit subsidy of one category of service over others, like payments (PayTM) or communication (WhatsApp).

Another concern is that neither Facebook nor the network, like Reliance, charges the providers of these sites. The question then becomes how Reliance will make money. Obviously, from charging for access to other sites. So, in effect, Snapdeal users are being charged money to subsidise Flipkart. This is a blatant net neutrality violation.

A better way to do this is to charge providers for access, at no more than the rate that end-users are paying. For example, Airtel can publish a rate of ₹200 per GB, say. Any site that pays this amount becomes available on Airtel’s network. After all, someone has to pay for it, so it doesn’t matter which side is paying for it, whether the users or the service.

In fact, companies that generate money from users, like e-commerce or payments, can provide free access. It’s illogical that I have to pay to access Flipkart in addition to for the product. That would be as illogical as a physical shop charging an entry fee in addition to the price of the product. As another example, if I’m already paying Google Drive for storage, and Google wants to provide me free access to my data, they should be able to do so.

All companies should be charged the same rate. Which should be published for transparency, and to let companies decide if they want to take up Airtel’s offer. There should be no room for negotiation, any more than I get to negotiable my monthly phone bill.

And carriers shouldn’t be able to refuse to include any company, like partnering with Facebook but not Snapdeal, or an e-commerce site you may happen to start this weekend.

Third parties should be able to resell access to Airtel’s network, along with access to other networks in India or abroad. Think of it as a CDN.

Facebook should adopt these ideas to keep the Internet neutral, while still allowing people to come online who aren’t already online. Everyone will benefit — users, companies, and the cellular networks. Do it the right way.

[1] Which is a bad name because people will confuse it with the Internet itself. Especially people who are not tech-savvy, who are exactly the target audience here.

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