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 

Top picks, best deals and all that you need to know for the Amazon Great Indian Festival

We’ve done the hard work so you can get right to what you want amongst the 40,000+ offers across 4 days.

The Great Indian Festival (21st-24th September) by Amazon is back and it’s more tempting than ever. This edition will cater to everyone, with offers on a range of products from electronics, home appliances, apparel for men and women, personal care, toys, pet products, gourmet foods, gardening accessories and more. With such overwhelming choice of products and a dozen types of offers, it’s not the easiest to find the best deals in time to buy before your find gets sold out. You need a strategy to make sure you avail the best deals. Here’s your guide on how to make the most out of the Great Indian Festival:

Make use of the Amazon trio – Amazon Prime, Amazon Pay and Amazon app

Though the festival officially starts on 21st, Amazon Prime members will have early access starting at 12 noon on 20th September itself, enabling them to grab the best deals first. Sign up for an Amazon Prime account to not miss out on exclusive deals and products. Throughout the festival, Prime members will 30-minute early access to top deals before non-Prime members. At Rs 499/- a year, the Prime membership also brings unlimited Amazon Prime video streaming and quick delivery benefits.

Load your Amazon pay wallet; there’s assured 10% cashback (up to Rs 500). Amazon will also offer incremental cashbacks over and above bank cashbacks on select brands as a part of its Amazon Pay Offers. Shopping from the app would bring to you a whole world of benefits not available to non-app shoppers. App-only deals include flat Rs 1,250 off on hotels on shopping for more than Rs 500, and flat Rs 1,000 off on flights on a roundtrip booking of Rs 5,000 booking from Yatra. Ten lucky shoppers can also win one year of free travel worth Rs 1.5 lakhs.

Plan your shopping

The Great Indian Sale has a wide range of products, offers, flash sales and lightning deals. To make sure you don’t miss out on the best deals, or lose your mind, plan first. Make a list of things you really need or have been putting off buying. If you plan to buy electronics or appliances, do your research on the specs and shortlist the models or features you prefer. Even better, add them to your wishlist so you’re better able to track your preferred products.

Track the deals

There will be lightning deals and golden hour deals throughout the festival period. Keep track to avail the best of them. Golden-hour deals will be active on the Amazon app from 9.00pm-12.00am, while Prime users will have access to exclusive lightning deals. For example, Prime-only flash sales for Redmi 4 will start at 2.00pm and Redmi 4A at 6.00pm on 20th, while Nokia 6 will be available at Rs 1,000 off. There will be BOGO Offers (Buy One Get One free) and Bundle Offers (helping customers convert their TVs to Smart TVs at a fraction of the cost by using Fire TV Stick). Expect exclusive product launches from brands like Xiaomi (Mi Band 2 HRX 32 GB), HP (HP Sprocket Printer) and other launches from Samsung and Apple. The Half-Price Electronics Store (minimum 50% off) and stores offering minimum Rs 15,000 off will allow deal seekers to discover the top discounts.

Big discounts and top picks

The Great Indian Festival is especially a bonanza for those looking to buy electronics and home appliances. Consumers can enjoy a minimum of 25% off on washing machines, 20% off on refrigerators and 20% off on microwaves, besides deals on other appliances. Expect up to 40% off on TVs, along with No-Cost EMI and up to Rs 20,000 off on exchange.

Home Appliances

Our top picks for washing machines are Haier 5.8 Kg Fully Automatic Top Loading at 32% off, and Bosch Fully Automatic Front Loading 6 Kg and 7 Kg, both available at 27% discount. Morphy Richards 20 L Microwave Oven will be available at a discount of 38%.

Our favorite pick on refrigerators is the large-sized Samsung 545 L at 26% off so you can save Rs 22,710.

There are big savings to be made on UV water purifiers as well (up to 35% off), while several 5-star ACs from big brands will be available at greater than 30% discount. Our top pick is the Carrier 1.5 Ton 5-star split AC at 32% off.

Also those looking to upgrade their TV to a smart one can get Rs. 20,000 off by exchanging it for the Sony Bravia 108cm Android TV.

Personal Electronics

There’s good news for Apple fans. The Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch Laptop 2017 will be available at Rs 55,990, while the iPad will be available at 20% off. Laptops from Lenovo, Dell and HP will be available in the discount range of 20% to 26%. Top deals are Lenovo Tab3 and Yoga Tab at 41% to 38% off. Apple fans wishing to upgrade to the latest in wearable technology can enjoy Rs 8,000 off on the Apple Watch series 2 smartwatch.

If you’re looking for mobile phones, our top deal pick is the LG V20 at Rs 24,999, more than Rs 5000 off from its pre-sale price.

Power banks always come in handy. Check out the Lenovo 13000 mAh power bank at 30% off.

Home printers are a good investment for frequent flyers and those with kids at home. The discounted prices of home printers at the festival means you will never worry about boarding passes and ID documents again. The HP Deskjet basic printer will be available for Rs 1,579 at 40% off and multi-function (printer/ scanner/ Wi-Fi enabled) printers from HP Deskjet and Canon will also available at 33% off.

The sale is a great time to buy Amazon’s native products. Kindle E-readers and Fire TV Stick will be on sale with offers worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,000 respectively.

The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

For those of you who have a bottomless collection of movies, music and photos, there is up to 60% off on hard drives and other storage devices. Our top picks are Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 off on Seagate Slim 5TB and 4TB hard drives respectively, available from 8.00am to 4.00pm on 21st September.

The sale will see great discounts of up to 60% off on headphones and speakers from the top brands. The 40% off on Bose QC 25 Headphones is our favourite. Top deals are on Logitech speakers with Logitech Z506 Surround Sound 5.1 multimedia Speakers at 60% off and the super compact JBL Go Portable Speaker at 56% off!

Other noteworthy deals

Cameras (up to 55% off) and camera accessories such as tripods, flash lights etc. are available at a good discount. Home surveillance cameras too will be cheaper. These include bullet cameras, dome cameras, simulated cameras, spy cameras and trail and game cameras.

For home medical supplies and equipment, keep an eye on the grooming and personal care section. Weighing scales, blood pressure monitors, glucometers, body fat monitors etc. will be available at a cheaper price.

The sale is also a good time to invest in home and kitchen supplies. Mixer-grinders and juicers could see lightning deals. Don’t ignore essentials like floor mops with wheels, rotating mop replacements, utensils, crockery etc. Tupperware sets, for example, will be more affordable. There are attractive discounts on bags, especially laptop bags, backpacks, diaper bags and luggage carriers.

Interesting finds

While Amazon is extremely convenient for need-based shopping and daily essentials, it is also full of hidden treasures. During the festival, you can find deals on telescopes, polaroid cameras, smoothie makers, gym equipment, gaming consoles and more. So you’ll be able to allow yourself some indulgences!

Small shopping

If you have children, the festival is good time to stock up on gifts for Diwali, Christmas, return gifts etc. On offer are gaming gadgets such as Xbox, dough sets, Touching Tom Cat, Barbies, classic board games such as Life and more. There are also some products that you don’t really need, but kind of do too, such as smartphone and tablet holders, magnetic car mounts for smartphones and mobile charging station wall stands. If you’re looking for enhanced functionality in daily life, do take a look at the Amazon Basics page. On it you’ll find USB cables, kitchen shears, HDMI cables, notebooks, travel cases and other useful things you don’t realise you need.

Check-out process and payment options

Amazon is also offering an entire ecosystem to make shopping more convenient and hassle-free. For the festival duration, Amazon is offering No-Cost EMIs (zero interest EMIs) on consumer durables, appliances and smartphones, plus exchange schemes and easy installation services in 65 cities. HDFC card holders can avail additional 10% cashback on HDFC credit and debit cards. Customers will also get to “Buy Now and Pay in 2018” with HDFC Credit Cards, as the bank offers a 3 Month EMI Holiday during the days of the sale. Use Amazon Pay balance for fast and easy checkouts, quicker refunds and a secured shopping experience.

Sales are fun and with The Great Indian Festival offering big deals on big brands, it definitely calls for at least window shopping. There’s so much more than the above categories, like minimum 50% off on American Tourister luggage! To start the treasure hunt, click here.

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