× Close
Open Letter

Full text: Facebook's Free Basics will limit internet freedom, say 50 faculty of IITs and IISc

The service isn't really free and violates user privacy, the scientists say.

Close to 50 faculty members of the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institute of Science on Tuesday released a statement highlighting flaws in Facebook's controversial Free Basics programme.

Free Basics is a subsidised internet platform that gives users Facebook and a few other services for free. Facebook says this will help connect India’s poor people to the internet. However, critics claim that it works against the rules of net neutrality, according to which all material on the Internet should be treated equally by internet service providers. Only a few products and websites, including Facebook, can be accessed through Free Basics.

The debate about the platform has been especially heated over the past few days because the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India set Wednesday as a deadline for the public to submit their opinions about whether the service should be allowed.

On Tuesday, a group of academics weighed in, claiming that Free Basics will limit the freedom with which Indians can use their own public utility, the internet.

Here is the full statement:
Allowing a private entity

- to define for Indian Internet users what is “basic”,

- to control what content costs how much, and

- to have access to the personal content created and used by millions of Indians

is a lethal combination which will lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their own public utility, the Internet. Facebook's “free basics” proposal is such a lethal combination, having several deep flaws, beneath the veil of altruism wrapped around it in TV and other media advertisements, as detailed below.

Flaw 1: Facebook defines what is “basic”.

The first obvious flaw in the proposal is that Facebook assumes control of defining what a “basic” service is. They have in fact set up an interface for services to “submit” themselves to Facebook for approval to be a “basic” service. This means: what are the “basic” digital services Indians will access using their own air waves will be decided by a private corporation, and that too one based on foreign soil. The sheer absurdity of this is too obvious to point out.

To draw an analogy, suppose a chocolate company wishes to provide “free basic food” for all Indians, but retains control of what constitutes “basic” food  ̶  this would clearly be absurd. Further, if the same company defines its own brand of “toffee” as a “basic” food, it would be doubly absurd and its motives highly questionable. While the Internet is not as essential as food, that the Internet is a public utility touching the lives of rich and poor alike cannot be denied. What Facebook is proposing to do with this public utility is no different from the hypothetical chocolate company. In fact, it has defined itself to be the first “basic” service, as evident from Reliance's ads on Free Facebook. Now, it will require quite a stretch of imagination to classify Facebook as “basic”. This is why Facebook's own ad script writers have prompted Mr. Zuckerberg to instead make emotional appeals of education and healthcare for the poor Indian masses; these appeals are misleading, to say the least.

Flaw 2: Facebook will have access to all your apps' contents.

The second major flaw in the model, is that Facebook would be able to decrypt the contents of the “basic” apps on its servers. This flaw is not visible to the lay person as it's a technical detail, but it has deep and disturbing implications. Since Facebook can access un-encrypted contents of users' “basic” services, either we get to consider health apps to be not basic, or risk revealing health records of all Indians to Facebook. Either we get to consider our banking apps to be not “basic”, or risk exposing the financial information of all Indians to Facebook. And so on. This is mind boggling even under normal circumstances, and even more so considering the recent internal and international snooping activities by the NSA in the US.

Flaw 3: It's not free.

The third flaw is that the term “free” in “free basics” is a marketing gimmick. If you see an ad which says “buy a bottle of hair oil, get a comb free”, you know that the cost of the comb is added somewhere. If something comes for free, its cost has to appear somewhere else. Telecom operators will have to recover the cost of “free basic” apps from the non-free services (otherwise, why not make everything free?). So effectively, whatever Facebook does not consider “basic” will cost more.

If Facebook gets to decide what costs how much, in effect Indians will be surrendering their digital freedom, and freedom in the digital economy, to Facebook. So this is not an issue of elite Indians able to pay for the Internet versus poor Indians, as Facebook is trying to portray. It is an issue of whether all Indians want to surrender their digital freedom to Facebook.

That the “Free Basics” proposal is flawed as above is alarming but not surprising, for it violates one of the core architectural principles of Internet design: net neutrality. Compromising net neutrality, an important design principle of the Internet, would invariably lead to deep consequences on people's freedom to access and use information. We therefore urge that the TRAI should support net neutrality in its strongest form, and thoroughly reject Facebook's “free basics” proposal.

Krithi Ramamritham, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Bhaskaran Raman, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Siddhartha Chaudhuri, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Ashwin Gumaste, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Kameswari Chebrolu, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Uday Khedker, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Madhu N. Belur, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Mukul Chandorkar, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Amitabha Bagchi, Associate Professor, CS&E, IIT Delhi

Vinay Ribeiro, Associate Professor, CS&E, IIT Delhi

Niloy Ganguly, Professor, CS&E, IIT Kharagpur

Animesh Kumar, Assistant Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Animesh Mukherjee, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Kharagpur

Subhashis Banerjee, Professor, CSE, IIT Delhi

Shivaram Kalyanakrishnan, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Saswat Chakrabarti, Professor, GSSST, IIT Kharagpur

H.Narayanan, Professor, EE, I.I.T Bombay

Vinayak Naik, Associate Professor, CSE, IIIT-Delhi

Aurobinda Routray, Professor, EE, IIT Kharagpur

Naveen Garg, Professor, IIT Delhi

Amarjeet Singh, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIIT-Delhi

Purushottam Kulkarni, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Supratik Chakraborty, Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Kavi Arya, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

S. Akshay, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Jyoti Sinha, Visiting Faculty, Robotics, IIIT Delhi

Joydeep Chandra, Assistant Professor, CSE, IIT Patna

Parag Chaudhuri, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

Rajiv Raman, Assistant Professor, IIIT-Delhi

Mayank Vatsa, Associate Professor, IIIT-Delhi

Anirban Mukherjee, Associate Professor, EE, IIT Kharagpur

Pushpendra Singh, Associate Professor, IIIT-Delhi

Partha Pratim Das, Professor, CSE, IIT Kharagpur

Dheeraj Sanghi, Professor, IIIT Delhi

Karabi Biswas, Associate Professor, EE, IIT Kharagpur

Bikash Kumar Dey, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Mohammad Hashmi, Assistant Professor, ECE, IIIT Delhi

Venu Madhav Govindu, Assistant Professor, EE, IISc Bengaluru

Murali Krishna Ramanathan, Assistant Professor, CSA, IISc Bangalore

Sridhar Iyer, Professor, IIT Bombay

Sujay Deb, Assistant Professor, ECE, IIIT Delhi

Virendra Sule, Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Om Damani, Associate Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

V Rajbabu, Assistant Professor, EE, IIT Bombay

Hema Murthy, Professor, CSE, IIT Madras

Anupam Basu, Professor, CSE, IIT Kharagpur

Sriram Srinivasan, Adjunct Professor, CSE, IIT Bombay

K.V.S. Hari, Professor, ECE, IISc, Bengaluru

Ashish Mishra, CSA IISc , Bangalore

Shalabh Gupta, EE, IIT Bombay

Suman Kumar Maji, EE, IIT Patna

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

45% consumers purchase financial products online according to our survey. Here’s why

How one of the last bastions of offline transactions is rapidly moving online.

With flight bookings, shopping and buying movie tickets all moving online, it was only a matter of time before purchasing financial products followed suit. In fact, with greater safety, better user interfaces, simpler processes and of course, busier lives, many Indians are opting to buy financial products like insurance and bank deposits online and on-the-go rather than at a bank branch.

We conducted a survey among 150 consumers in 4 metro cities (Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore and Ahmedabad) and 2 tier-II cities (Indore and Bhopal) to understand the financial products Indians are buying online and their needs.

The market for financial products still has huge potential for growth with 29% respondents reporting that they owned no financial instruments. Insurance is without a doubt the most widely owned financial instrument for Indians. Nearly half the sample—45% of the respondents—reported investing in insurance. Apart from that, around 27% invested in bank deposits like Fixed and Recurring Deposits and only 13% opted for mutual funds, 13% bought stocks, and just 10% took home loans. While many people still consume financial products only at their bank branches, a large number have started seeking financial information and buying financial instruments online.

The shifting tide

We found that 45% of the survey respondents bought financial products online, indicating that a large chunk of Indians is trusting the internet to manage something as sensitive as their financial investments. It is clear that Indians value the distinct advantages of transacting online. Convenience is an integral part of the experience—60% of those who bought financial products online felt that convenience played an important role in choosing to purchase online. Multiple aspects of convenience resonate with buyers—over 40% felt that the availability of 24/7 services and the ease of comparing different products from drove them to buy online.

However, findings also reveal some concerns that even tech-savvy Indians have with the online medium.

Security is king

Understandably, security is a key factor for buyers of financial products. Even among the 45% who purchased financial products online, almost half felt that the lack of security prevented them from buying more financial products online. Tellingly, the most commonly bought financial product online is general insurance. It has to be bought (in the case of travel) or renewed (in the case of car insurance) regularly and quickly, which is easier done online. It also doesn’t require the submission of too many personal documents—another­ factor reported by many as a barrier to online purchase of financial products.

To overcome these security concerns, many companies are taking concrete steps to improve the online security of their portals. They are setting up SSL security systems that encrypt and protect the user’s data and payments and are educating customers on how to recognize online payment scams. Thus, people are slowly moving towards buying high involvement financial items like life insurance as well online.

The human factor

Research is a crucial part of the buying process, and most buyers seek information from multiple sources. While research for several consumer products like electronics and furniture has moved online even if purchase is offline, financial products have been slower to move, especially due to the need for expertise. From the sample, 55% rated talking to financial consultants and advisors as very important. Similarly, 55% rated advice from friends and family as very important.

As is evident, while the world is going online, there is something to be said for the familiarity and comfort of human interaction. Even online buyers value non-digital channels of communication. Of those who bought financial products online, 25% felt that visiting bank branches was important, 30% felt that recommendations from friends and family was important, and 33% felt that discussing it with financial advisors was important.

However, we find that online forums and aggregators are also gaining in terms of people using them to research products. According to a BCG report, search queries on life and health insurance have grown 4.5 times from 2008 to 2013, showing that digital is certainly influencing the research part of the buying cycle. Many life insurance companies and banks have caught on to this trend and are finding ways of making customer service executives available online through chat facilities on their portals. Additionally, companies are also investing in a better online user experience by designing their websites to be simple, attractive and easy-to-understand, so that the process of purchase becomes easier for customers.

When it comes to buying insurance, finding an appropriate plan is not an easy process. Life insurance companies are using technology and algorithms to overcome these human biases with innovative products like life insurance calculators. An example of this is the HDFC Life insurance profiler which simplifies the process of choosing an insurance plan. A person can enter five to six parameters and get an objective opinion on the best insurance plan suited to his or her time and status in life.

HDFC Life Insurance has also taken detailed note of its customers’ requirements as they move towards the digital age. Its product website has been designed to ensure consumers feel secure and well attended to when transacting online. All payment gateways have SSL security and are ISO 27001 certified to ensure optimum security. Additionally, to facilitate easy query resolution, it offers an online chat function along with co-browsing where a user can give control of her or her system to the chat executive so that details can be filled in for them. To solve for the barrier of document submission, HDFC Life even allows users to submit documents through e-mail or upload files on Google drive in place of hard copies. Easy e-KYC facilities allow for the Aadhar card and address proof to be uploaded online to quickly verify identity. To find the right insurance plan for yourself and experience the innovative services that the organization has to proffer head to their insurance profiler to start your journey towards buying a life insurance plan.


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

× Close