net neutrality

Poor internet for poor people: why Facebook’s Internet.org amounts to economic racism

Research after research shows that zero services around the world tend to do badly for the people who use them.

Perhaps you’ve been following the news from the digital front in India – there is been a significant movement in support of net neutrality.

This is the concept that holds, among other things, that all bits and bytes should be treated the same on all telco and carrier networks, so that all users can have their experience of exactly the same internet, with no bias for or against any site for any reason.

Over 750,000 emails have been to the Telecom Authority of India, the telecom regulator, from http://savetheinternet.in in the last week. This in itself is unprecedented. (Savetheinternet.in is a webpage created as a platform for consumers to send their responses to TRAI.)

Deep distrust of Zero, in the land that invented it.

One sidelight that has assumed much larger proportions now is the status of “Zero Rating” services. Simply put, these are products where a set of websites are bundled and users get to surf them for free, because the bandwidth in these cases is paid to the operator by the sites themselves.

Two of the more infamous zero offerings are Airtel Zero and Facebook’s Internet.org.

The Airtel offering has been trying to present itself as a “marketing platform for apps”. You might say, so what is the problem with that? Look at it this way – if internet access is offered for free, then one can assume that folks will rush to spend time there – and many of these folks will be the economically less-advantaged ones.

Once they log in, though, they’ll end up seeing only a handful of sites that have typically paid a large chunk of money to be there. And those that have paid these placement fees essentially now sit at the ‘front door’ of the internet to these newbie users – and they will raise their prices to make back the hefty fees they have paid to get their prime spots. Also, from the user’s point of view, there is no other part of the internet they can go to from here.

In every way, from exploiting the poor, to being a restrictive trade practice because startups will not have a chance to be discovered by users via word of mouth because they cannot afford the placement fees, to simply denying the wonder and the width of the internet to the young and knowledge-hungry – this practice is terrible.

And 750,000 people thought so too, to write to the government to stop it.

Both the Zero services – Airtel’s and Facebook’s – have had bad days lately, with Flipkart leaving the former and a line of Indian internet firms: Cleartrip, NewsHunt, NDTV and Times Group (partly) leaving the latter.

Zuckerberg defends his apparent charity

While the telcos – especially Airtel – hide behind their increasingly harried-sounding industry group the Cellular Operators Association of India, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook decided to go on the offence with an “editorial piece” in a leading newspaper where he tried to defend his product Internet.org as some sort of world-changing corporate social responsibility effort born from the goodness of his heart.

Internet.org is slightly different from the Airtel product. While Airtel guys are open that they are launching Zero to make money because they say they don’t make enough right now – last year’s net profits of Rs 9,500 crore ($1.5 billion) notwithstanding, Zuckerberg is slightly more subtle.

Here is how the scheme works. Facebook approaches a telco – in India’s case, Reliance – and offers to pay them the bandwidth costs of serving Facebook site and a small group of other sites.

So when the poor, who in theory cannot afford a net connection come to the Facebook Zero service confusingly called Internet.org, they are made to believe they are on the internet while in reality they are only on Facebook and a few hand-picked sites.

And the sites too are picked in secret under some unknown process. For instance, Facebook chose to offer the distant-second search engine Bing instead of industry-leading Google. Why? Is it rivalry with Google? Or because of Microsoft’s stake in Facebook? And then Facebook’s Zero product features a tiny job site like Babajob instead of the industry-leading Naukri. Why? So that the poor have fewer job options? No one knows. Facebook does not feature YouTube – the largest video site in the world and an immense education resource – but allows its own videos in full. It does not really look like charity any more, does it?

Indian journalist Nikhil Pahwa has responded to Zuckerberg’s editorial, by pointing out research after research that shows zero services around the world universally tend to do badly for the people who use them. It all seems to amount to economic racism – exploiting the poor in under-developed parts of the world to become your customers under the guise of some apparent charitable purpose. While offering them a shoddy, stunted version of the real thing. As Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of payments app PayTM, puts it: “It’s poor internet for poor people”.

In perfect irony, Zuckerberg talks about seeing the wonder of a kid in a remote Indian village discovering the power of the internet. The upshot being that if Zuckerberg – himself a child prodigy – ever was brought up on internet.org, he couldn’t have ever built a Facebook.

Internet Dot Org neither offers the internet to its users – nor is a dot org, denoting a charitable organisation. It just seems to be a cloaked proxy for the Facebook Economically Disadvantaged User Acquisition Department.

Indian political leaders reject the charity

Two of the more digitally astute Indian politicians – Naveen Patnaik of Odisha and Arvind Kejriwal of Delhi – who together represent more than 60 million Indians – have weighed in against Facebook and Airtel’s Zero efforts.

The Odisha chief minister says in his letter to the regulator that “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.”

The Aam Aadmi Party says“The Aam Aadmi Party believes that the innovative youth of this country will give us the next Google, Facebook or Whatsapp.  However, if some websites or applications or services are offered free or at faster speeds, the balance tips towards established players with deeper pockets which kills the innovative young start-ups that will emanate from this ecosystem.”

The ruling party, the BJP, has made noises about net neutrality and non-discriminatory availability of the internet, it is still adopting a wait-and watch attitude to the actual regulation process.

Neutrality in Silicon Valley, but not in Araku Valley

Meanwhile the heat is turning up on other Silicon Valley firms who are part of these Zero efforts. Google, which led a loud battle in the US for net neutrality, has quietly been part of the Airtel Zero product in India, in shining hypocricy to its stance in the West. Twitter has done the same too, managing to speak out of both sides of its mouth, being part of the Airtel Zero plan in India while singing hosannas to neutrality in the US.

While Airtel has a long history of playing fast and loose with customers, one wonders why Facebook had to do this. Perhaps the flat stock price is one reason.

While Facebook and Google have pretty much the same number of users – around 1.3 billion worldwide – the former makes $12 billion off them and the latter makes $66 billion – a full 5 times more per user. Not being able to bridge this gap, it probably figured it had to do all it can to increase that number of users – while not letting them go to Google for search.

Ergo, Internet.org, all dressed up as some well-meaning Silicon Valley philanthropy.

We will never know, though. But it increasingly looks like India is saying “thanks, but no thanks” to Facebook and Airtel’s Zero efforts.

Perhaps the only way the second world and the third world can grow is to behave like they’re first world nations, and demand to be treated on par with every other netizen in the world.

Oh, we’re not done yet. The battle still rages. And it doesn’t look like Facebook and Airtel are done yet.

This article was originally published on qz.com.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.