Not Basics and not Free

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I believe in conscientious capitalism; that’s a kind of driving force with me – Zachary Levi

Capitalism is fast mutating into a strange animal. From profit seeking, self-aggrandizing and all devouring heartless animal, it is now trying to metamorphose into a kind and altruist creature. What is playing out in India over the past days is both shocking and surprising. Here is an organisation (nay individual) who wants to give away a service to those who may not be able to afford it (according to them/he) and a phalanx of socialists are up against this altruism and asking him to charge for his service! It is the turn of events which must be making the high priest of capitalism Adam Smith and the high priest of communism Karl Marx turn in their graves in opposite directions.

Facebook has come out with a reported Rs.100 crore campaign called FreeBasics offering to give away Facebook and some select sites free for use. Process is simple – register for FreeBasics and you can access ads free version of Facebook and some other sites at no data charges. What is the catch? Looking in to the mouth of the gift horse, the champions of neutrality have called the bluff of Facebook. Calling it a walled garden, they argue, as a FreeBasics member you are limited and restricted in your choice of Internet use as it will be supervised by Facebook. Likening it to East India Company, the net neutralists are fighting against the technological imperialism of Facebook. Here’s my take on it.

When you give, don’t ask. It should be the guiding principle of any charitable act. Facebook if interested in spreading Internet to the masses can help subsidise the cost of data (which in India anyway is among the lowest in the world). Being tech-challenged person, wish to leave the argument to the techies. What then is real charity in Internet world? A look at its history will reveal.

Internet was in existence nearly 3 decades before it exploded on the world as we know it today. Military and scientific establishments used it with limited functionality- to connect and share. Tim Berners-Lee, an Englishman working in CERN, the esteemed nuclear physics laboratory, created the structure around the then sketchy Internet. He wanted to call it The Information Mesh, but dumped it as the acronym (TIM) was too egocentric. He settled for The World Wide Web (www). He outlined the language of internet HTML, the connectivity process HTTP and the unique address code URL which are still in use and may not go away for some time. He created the first website www.info.cern.ch. From few hundred of scientific colleagues the usage spread to thousands. Others added more functionalities to the internet which we use till date. CERN owned the intellectual property rights for the WWW and could have charged any amount for its use. Lee convinced his bosses at CERN to release the rights and on April 30, 1993 CERN announced that the World Wide Web was free for anyone without any legal constraints.

In the list of tech, dot com or web billionaires one name is never found – Tim Berners Lee. Right from naming the network, to giving the rights away, he was the true giver. But for Lee’s magnanimity the world would have looked different. Contrast this act of Lee with what FreeBasics is offering. Question that arises is, why Facebook wants to do it?

Facebook has more than 1.2 billion members, is visited daily by about 800 million and has revenues of $12 billion¬†with market capitalisation of $250 billion. If the number of Facebook members and visits increase, the capitalisation (that’s how tech companies are valued) will increase. Facebook may allow ads in FreeBasics in future which will add to further revenues, which in turn will increase its capitalisation. With China closed for Facebook, the next growth can come only from India. Economics, stupid!

Believing that FreeBasics is the missing link between present and a better life is a grandiose thought. Rs.100 crores could have been spent better – give free computers to schools in rural India, free wi-fi networks in hinterlands of India, computer education etc. Charity is not a Limited Liability Company and it should come from the heart not from the pocket.

Happy New Year to you all!

Regards

Kamesh

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