India’s telecom regulator has extended the deadline for comments on differential pricing, the policy that would govern FreeBasics by a week to January 7. This has prompted a campaign from Facebook to support FreeBasics as well as a counter-campaign by net neutrality activists, calling for it to bebanned or regulated.
Against this backdrop, Scroll spoke to Chris Daniels, Vice President of Product for Internet.org, the arm of Facebook that looks over initiatives like Free Basics. Daniels explained why he believes the current conversation should have happened in a more constructive fashion much earlier in the process, why he thinks Free Basics will not distort the market and why it is fine for Facebook to use its platform to advocate for the product. Below are edited excerpts from the interview:
Why is Facebook running such a large marketing campaign? What has been its effect?
The goal of the campaign is to address some of the criticism we’ve heard. We want to make sure our message is getting out with our voice. The goal is to speak to the benefits of Free Basics and I think it has been successful in communicating what we aim to do.
Why do you think people are opposing Free Basics?
The number one piece of feedback is questions around whether the programme is truly open and whether it will harm other internet companies and products. We heard some of the feedback when we first launched it and made it truly open. Now anyone can come on board. We just require developers to do two things before they do, meeting a set of technical guidelines, with the aim of making sure people have a good experience when they come online. We need to makes sure the sites open quickly and without data charges. But beyond that we’ve opened the programme to absolutely any developer. We’ve never rejected a developer open to the guidelines.
Your ads and your CEO have asked “who could possibly be against this” and about false claims being spread. Do you believe well intentioned people might still be opposed to Free Basics?
I do think there is false information out there, even now. When we first launched there was a lot of false information, and we listened to the feedback and have made FreeBasics truly open… We have let everyone on the programme that has complied with the guidelines. Free Basics is built around openness .
In fact, one of the things that we have said is that we would be even happy to have a regulator look at the programme on a case-by-case basis. We have said that we are happy to have a third-party audit on what developer we reject. We have never once rejected a developer that has complied with the guidelines.
Since you first launched you have had lots of opportunities to get your word out. Why do you think this false information is still out there?
It comes down to an issue of whether the developer community trust Facebook and internet.org, and whether they think we will let all developers in.
And the fact is, we will. We are going to let all developers in. When we first launched the programme we received feedback that made it seem like we were not open. We heard that feedback and have made it truly open.
We have even designed the programme to be aligned with TRAI’s principles… It’s a programme that has proven to work in over 35 countries and one that will work well, to get people to explore the entire internet in India. It’s design is to get people to move on to the internet. If people would stay on FreeBasics that’s not something that would make sense for us also. And it has proven to be good at getting people to move onto the full internet.
Do you understand that the opposition is coming as much from the tech fraternity as it is from the consumers? Why do you think start-ups and industry bodies are opposed?
Many other companies have versions of what we’re doing. But thing is, they’re all welcome to join FreeBasics. As to why they’re opposed, I think you’d have to ask them about that.
You’ve spoken about Facebook being the best possible model for increasing access, and in doing so said subsidising data ‒ another model that involves giving people a certain amount of data for free ‒ distorts markets. But all the companies in the world aren’t making beeline to get onto FreeBasics. By offering on ly a part of the internet, won’t Free Basics inherently do the same?
Let me be clear. Facebook is working on multiple models to connect people to the internet, we have the express WiFi model. We also have our RnD project around solar planes. We have a satellite project over Africa. So we are working on many models.
Even when it comes to providing internet. We’re open to a variety of models. And there have been other models that have been proposed. What we think is that all of these other models are perfectly valid, and people should go explore with them. We think FreeBasics is a valid model as well, that people should explore. It’s far more proven than the others.
We’re not against any of these other programmes. FreeBasics is a platform where any developer can choose to join… I don’t think that Free Basics, given that it’s an open platform, that it has the capability to distort the market. I think it’s more likely that it will spur innovation.
What is the relationship with India’s regulators?
Let’s be clear. We’re not a regulated entity. We don’t have an official relationship with the regulators. The regulated entities are the telcos. So the relationship with the regulators is that we offered comments on the consultation paper. We’re participating in the process like any other stakeholder.
Among the things that Zuckerberg suggested is that FreeBasics is a lot like libraries or healthcare, where some services are offered for free. All of those examples are of the government offering something to its people. Facebook sees FreeBasics as a way of bringing the internet to people beyond what the government is capable of doing?
I think we’d be happy to work with the government. But I also think one of the government’s roles do is to spur innovation in the private sector to bring people online. I think the role of private companies in bringin people online is very important and that I think it’s entirely valid for us to work not only with the government but also on our own and in partnership with other companies to look at various models to bring people online.
Why isn’t a version of FreeBasics available in the States? Why isn’t it a model that works there?
It would be a model that works. We’ve really prioritised our efforts on countries where the most people are unconnected. We’d be happy to offer FreeBasics in the United States, that’s something we’d be happy to do. I think it works in any market. We’ve offered FreeBasics in many countries that are very developed countries. i think it’s a programme that can work anywhere on the globe.
You say you don’t keep data, but Facebook does share data with the NSA in America? How do you address the security concern?
FreeBasics we have posted exactly what data we do collect, and exactly what we use that data for. Our privacy policies are exceptionally clear. We don’t have agreements with governments to hand over data.
Facebook later added these clarifications in an email message:
“Facebook takes user privacy and security extremely seriously. Free Basics receives and stores data on navigation information – the domain or name of the Third-Party Service accessed through Free Basics, and the amount of data (e.g. megabytes) used when you access or use that service – because it needs to determine what traffic can be delivered free of data charges. Facebook does not store any personal navigation information from within the service beyond 90 days. We don’t share any personally identifiable information with our content partners and there is no requirement for those partners to send Facebook such information about their users.
As we have emphasized before, Facebook does not provide any government with ‘back doors’ or direct access to people’s data.”
You have left yourself open to an advertising model in the future? Why leave the policy open to change in the future, and raise suspicion that way?
Actually people are attacking us on both sides of this issue. Some people are telling us we need to show advertisements in order to pay for data, and that’s what I said I was specifically open to. I said that if there are other models that are economically viable, we’d be open to exploring. And then on the other sides some people want us to say that we won’t show any advertisements on FreeBasics ever, and that’s what we currently do. People are on both sides of this issue.
Within FreeBasics, we have never showed any ads.We have no plans to show any ads. I don’t see an economically viable model, that would have us show ads in order to support giving people more data. If that model arrives in the future, maybe we would consider it.
Did you have a discussion over Facebook’s use of its own platform to get people to lobby the regulator, TRAI?
I think it’s absolutely fair to use our platform to advocate on behalf of our product, when the government has asked for comments from people and companies. I think it’s fair. We’ve used it in a very fair way. It’s not dissimilar at all to email campaigns that others have been using or the media that other people have been using to get this debate. I think we’ve used it fairly, and it’s actually very similar to how people on the other side of this debate have been able to get their side out.
Other countries have banned zero rating and different pricing. Say it does happen in India, how will Internet.org approach India if TRAI didn’t allow FreeBasics?
I think the question isn’t around whether TRAI is going to allow or not allow Free Basics. The question is what regulatory regime TRAI will put in place regarding differential pricing if any at all. And we will certainly stay within whatever regulatory guidelines TRAI puts in place. We will continue to work in India to try and get more people online. Without speculating on what the outcome of this will be, we will continue to try bring people online. India is a very important market, and there are still many many people who are not expecting the benefits of connectivity and we want to bring them online.
We’ve had issues in India in recent years about gatekeepers that are biased. Do you appreciate why it is that people might have a problem with questionable gatekeepers?
I definitely understand the concern around gatekeepers, that’s why when we received the feedback, that the programme was not open and that we were perceived as a gatekeeper. And then we opened the programme, and when we opened it we really opened it. We’re letting any service that complies with the technical specifications be part of FreeBasics. We want all developers to be part of free basics. We’re offered to open ourselves to third-party scrutiny around the process of approvals. I definitely understand the concern around gatekeepers, we’ve done everything to ensure we won’t be a gatekeeper, and we’ve even invited third-parties to ensure that we aren’t acting as gatekeepers and aren’t abusing that position.
Developers might feel the policy might be arbitrary in the future. Have you reached out directly to the community? What have you heard?
We’ve certainly reached out to the industry and to key stakeholders and influencers to discuss their concerns. One of the things we’ve shown through this year is that we’re open to feedback and we want this system to work for the entire ecosystem. We believe it works well for the whole ecosystem by bringing more people online. There have been concerns over whether the program is open, security concerns…We’ve taken great strides in addressing those concerns and will continue to do so.
Do you intend to fully publish the data which you claim shows people moving on to the full internet?
We’ve released the data. Whenever we launch FreeBasics, along with our operator partners, we want to take a good look at not only our data but also theirs in an anonymous way… to ensure that the programme is working. For it to be working it needs to be doing a couple of things. It needs to be growing the online population as a whole. We’re not interested in shifting share between operators, that’s not growing the pie for the entire ecosystem. So we’re looking at a combination of operator data and Facebook data, to try and infer how many people are coming online. And we think that’s happening because we see internet penetration increase at a faster rate in countries where we’ve launched. We really triangulate data on a number of sources of course keeping it anonymous and aggregated.
Operators can see how many people are moving from free to paid, that’s quite easy data for our partners to access.
Have other operators spoken to you about coming on board?
In India there’s no one beyond Reliance at the moment. It’s an interesting situation at the moment, we’ve had operators say they will turn it on, immediately if the debate is over. Because they simply don’t want to come under public scrutiny until the rules are clear. Which is very very understandable. At the same time we have had people question whether it’s open to multiple operators and we’re a bit stuck in a catch-22, where multiple operators are willing to sign up once the debate is over, but one of the things people are asking in the debate is whether it’s open to multiple operators. The fact of the matter is it is. Any operator can find the agreement online, they can set up on FreeBasics on their own.
What does Facebook take away from the fact that people continue to be so opposed, distrustful of your plans?
I think one of the things we want to do is engage more proactively and earlier with the entire community. Certainly when we heard feedback, I think we have had a good track record of changing the programme to address the criticism and what I would like to see a much more thoughtful and meaningful debate and discuss that can be had amongst all stakeholders about how to get people online.
I think that would have been better had over the preceding months and before this consultation paper. And it would have been better to have had face to face than in the press.
Have you made an effort to have it face to face?
We’ve certainly made efforts throughout the year. I think what we would like is to have a more open dialogue with the entire ecosystem, and we all should have engaged with that in the preceding months.