When Free is Not Really Free
The Free Basics program which has become a topic of intense debate thanks to the tweetstorms by Marc Andreessen — is a stroke of genius. The program is called free, it sounds like free, and it is “free”.
Yet, it is not truly free — for it comes with many restrictions that limit the usefulness of the service, the freedom of people using it and lacks fairness of equal access to content and app providers.
While nobody in their right mind refuses “free”, as Marc pointed out in his tweets, the FCC of India (called TRAI) rightly decided against the Internet.org Free Basics program.
After all, what does free even mean?
1. adverb: not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes.
2. adjective: without cost or payment.
The Free Basics program is the latter kind of free while we all want and demand the first kind too.
The Ma Bell Free Internet
Imagine a 1990's program called “Ma Bell Internet for Poor and Parsimonious People” — a program that seeks to help millions of Americans who crave access to the internet with “free internet”.
Except the so called “free internet” will have rules that essentially limit which parts of the internet you can visit and for how long.
You are free to go about this free internet as long as you visit the following 1763 websites, using only these 2 browsers and refrain from other parts of the internet unless you want to pay for them above and beyond.
How many people in America want to have this second-class internet? In fact, we have fought tooth and nail in this country over the last 20 years to keep the internet from turning into any single company’s “information superhighway” or any single company’s walled garden AOL.
Andreessen, Netscape and Facebook
Marc Andreessen, who as Facebook board member, supports the Free Basics program vehemently fought against the monopoly of Microsoft — and their decision to bundle Internet Explorer for Free. This Wired article on Netscape vs Microsoft explains this in detail.
Among other moves, Microsoft’s browser would be improved, made faster, and offered online for free.
The lesson we all learned from the attempts by the big companies to dominate the internet by using their market power and offering “free” is that we need to beware of the free.
The Power of Default
What Microsoft was trying to achieve in late ’90s was the ability to default our browser choice to Internet Explorer and make it difficult, if not impossible, for an average person to switch to Netscape.
We also know that Apple Maps on iOS is dominating ever since it replaced Google Maps as default.
In fact, the value of being default option is billions of dollars. Google paid over $1B to Apple to be the default search engine choice in Apple’s iOS devices.
In other words, a ‘free internet program’ that pre-selects a set of apps for the average new millions of users in India could potentially alter who wins in India — and is therefore worth billions of dollars.
While I disagree with the “Free Basics” program of Facebook, I do think that its possible that Mark Zuckerberg and his team were genuinely trying to help millions of people go online.
I grew up in a socialist India which was backwards by most standards, and therefore, just like my online friend Marc Andreessen, I want to see private companies solve big problems enabled by a free & fair capitalist system. While he may be on the other side of this debate and have made some questionably worded tweets — I believe Marc is coming from a place of intellectual honesty and nothing but respect and admiration for India and its people.
We are all fortunate to live in a world where billionaires and thought leaders like Zuckerberg and Andreessen not only engage with the challenges at a global level but they do so on Facebook and Twitter where we can all express opinions, outrage and then come together to find ways to achieve our stated common goal — let’s get the next billion people online faster.