Facebook Meets The License Raj Of India

It’s easy to think of Facebook as the world’s largest social network. It takes a bit more imagination to envision Facebook as the world’s dominant global nation-state, a new type state where citizens can connect and communicate across political borders and where the network’s CEO, who is only currently 31 years old, is on a march to be the world’s richest and most powerful businessperson by a long mile.

Zuck and Facebook have been able to tackle and master most challenges that’ve stood in there way. Today in India, the company and Internet.org want to use a mix of satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles to provide connectivity to India’s rural population. And, of course, there is a catch, but one worth exploring.

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In a previous life, I worked on many projects all over India. For a while, I thought I would move there — I was born in the U.S., first-generation, and grew more and more fascinated with the idea of moving to India during and after graduate school. I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, as I love the country and all the potential, but I got burnt out by the business climate and found myself longing to get back to California.

It’s been a good while since I’ve spent cycles thinking about India at large, but today was a day that jogged many old memories. The background is: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team have devised, with Internet.org, a way to bring basic web communications and services to the rural poor in India, with the help of unmanned aerial vehicles, micro-satellites, and balloons. The catch is Facebook won’t provide these new users with full access to the entire “heavy” web of YouTube videos and bulky web pages — instead, he and Facebook will offer, in partnership with India’s Reliance, a zero-rated (e.g. free of data charges) service called “Free Basics” which will provide users with basic web and communication services such as email, chat, education portals, and so forth.

Zuckerberg is a savvy technocrat. With one billion users on his platforms today, he knows the two plum global markets to crack to grow Facebook are China and India. ‘Free Basics” is a digital olive branch meant to simultaneously connect hundreds of millions of poor and unconnected citizens across India’s great farmlands.

But, as I learned by catching up on all the news today, no good deed goes unpunished.

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Activist groups in India are trying to block the deal. Their argument is (1) net neutrality must be protected on behalf of new digital population and (2)  Free Basics restricts the web for the poor. Activists in opposition to Facebook’s deal believe giving away this audience to Facebook isn’t worth the long-term risk of giving aways keys to the digital kingdom to a California-based company that’s on a path to be the most powerful corporation in the world.

From the POV of Facebook and Internet.org, their remote data technologies would empower some of the world’s poorest people, in conjunction with Reliance for data, to harness the web for basic functions like learning, communication, photos, and so forth. Most recently, however, it seems like both the media and the regulators are having cold feet about giving Facebook these keys to their citizens. (You can read Zuck’s op-ed he placed in Indian newspaper here.)

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The License Raj in India both provides protection for national industries but also presents a roadblock to national economic success. For instance, for many decades, China would leverage the unique tax and economic incentives with special economic zones (SEZs), but India’s attempt to copy them mainly resulted in property scams which marginalized the disenfranchised the poor rural landowner. Going back many decades to the time of India’s independence from The British Empire, U.S. forces and automakers tried to be first to market by offering to build highways and roads for the new country in exchange for the right to sell into these new open markets.

India refused these overtures from “the outside” in the past, a reaction most-likely fueled by a distaste for its own historical memory of colonial occupation. One could argue a host of reasons why India should have acted differently, but it’s worth keeping in mind India has only been truly independent since midway through the 20th Century. There is a deep-seated belief in India, after the Raj, that they themselves as a nation want to address their own problems. India prides itself on its democracy, but even that political system is not wholly their own — it was a parting gift from its previous rulers everyone accepts to be the best system of governance.

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What we have today in India, of course, are networks of crappy roads, two-lane dangerous highways, and a government who doesn’t have the will to consider modern infrastructure projects. Will the state of India’s physical roads provide a harbinger of what to expect as the country gears up to have hundreds of million more citizens come online through all the new and reused mobile phones that will be hitting the market?

Given all this context, this is why the news about activist groups in India trying to stop or disrupt Facebook’s negotiations is so tragically comical. After Facebook built up a this service (“Basics”) and prepared to offer this suite of services for free in return for trying to hook the newest of the new potential users, dissenters began to question the impact of Free Basics as it relates to the Net Neutrality debate. To this end, you can read up about India’s possible nuking of this deal and read specifically the op-ed Zuck took out in an Indian newspaper today to make sure his arguments are heard.

In the end, paternalistic activists may end up blocking Facebook from its plans in the name of Net Neutrality, thus denying the over 600 million citizens who live in relative rural poverty the chance to escape the farm, the chance to leave the slums, and the chance to simply communicate with their families, which could by now be scattered across India or other parts of the world.

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Personally, if activists in India block this, it will be a sad day for the country. If Facebook’s plans are thwarted, how will the Government of India step up to ensure these rural citizens have the devices, networks, and money to charge their phones and pay data rates in order to surf the neutral net they want to defende? The Government can say “no” to a new project, but would they have the resolve and passion to fund an alternative to universal web services access?

Probably not.

The lingering effects of the License Raj are crippling India when the country needs order the most. The cult of the License Raj drove India to mostly build its own roads and spur help from other outside forces. Today’s roads in India are an outdated relic of the past, and there’s no reason to believe tomorrow’s data networks will be any better.

I wonder if someone polled just 100m rural Indian citizens and asked them, if given the choice between (1) a basic smartphone where they could search Wikipedia, connect with other people, email, and talk on Facebook-related platforms and not have to pay for the data or (2) nothing, I have a sneaking suspicion at least 99m would opt for Choice #1.

Whatever happens here, the larger point is global corporations are the new data networks that society will be built upon, and in the case of Facebook, can provide critical infrastructure and access to a huge population at a much faster and efficient rate than government could. By contrast, India’s government, activist culture, and penchant for arguing nuance may end up losing the forest (a step toward universal access and lifting out of poverty) for the trees (long-term concerns around Net Neutrality).

When I post this, I know it will rile up some folks in India and who are ex-pats who sympathize with the protective benefits of The License Raj culture, but I feel quite confident having access to the web (even if limited to start) is a core human right and an essential ingredient to lifting anyone — in India or other rural places in third-world countries — into a new life.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus