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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

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