The Global Struggle against Free Basics

India banned Facebook’s Free Basics app on February 8 after protests concerning net neutrality. CGCS Visiting Scholar Till Waescher explains what the ban means for domestic and transnational privacy advocates.

India’s recent ban on Facebook’s zero-rating initiative is a huge victory for both domestic and transnational privacy advocates

While many have voiced concerns surrounding Facebook’s Free Basics service’s violation of net neutrality principles, digital rights activists across the world also oppose the service due to privacy concerns. These activists highlight that for impoverished citizens of the ‘Global South’ the data plan is not actually ‘free’ as they pay with their personal data. Although Facebook has pledged to store the data for only 90 days, advocates worry that the company may permanently monitor the Free Basics traffic. A brief look at the debate in India also reveals that the fear of online surveillance was central in the anti-Free Basics movement. For example, Anupam Saraph, a Professor of Systems, Governance and Decision Sciences at the University of Groningen, and an advisor to the World Economic Forum, has called Facebook’s service “more dangerous than the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) Prism Project,” essentially threatening Svarajya, India’s founding narrative of self-rule developed by Gandhi during the struggle for independence.

Critiques of Free Basics being a masked form of ‘digital colonialism’ have accompanied the project from the start—even a major, largely friendly profile in TIME magazine called aspects of Free Basics “distasteful”. (An unfortunate, quickly deleted tweet by board member Marc Andreessen seemed to confirm critics who accused Facebook of having a colonial mentality.) Activists around the world have noted that Free Basics effectively resembles the British Empire and brings in algorithms from the ‘North’ to data-mine the ‘South.’  While the Indian government’s eventual decision to not greenlight Facebook’s initiative was mainly the result of national discourse and activism within India, the international attention the issue received certainly helped. One of the core mechanisms of any form of transnational contention – lifting local or national concerns to the international level[1] – is applied in this case as well. Through globally coordinated efforts, activists and advocates within and outside of India managed to put the Free Basic controversy on the international news agenda.

This is remarkable for two reasons. First, roughly three years after the Snowden revelations, privacy activism, though theoretically transnational in scope, remains very much confined to national legislative battles and debates. Advocacy organizations based in Uganda, Colombia, or the US, for example, may share a general commitment to online privacy but they are still very much entangled in national debates over laws, data breaches or scandals.[2] One notable exception is the Electronic Frontier Foundation which has pledged to fight surveillance in the name of the 96 percent of the world’s population that lives outside the US.

Second, mainstream privacy activist organizations rarely criticize online companies such as Google or Facebook, which – willingly or unwillingly – play a crucial role in the mass online surveillance conducted by the NSA and their international partners. In early 2014, when activists launched the “Day We Fight Back,” the biggest online protest event against government surveillance in the post-Snowden era, activists joined forces with Google and Facebook.

But the transnational issue of an American company trying to expand its influence in India, Latin America and Africa has rallied and united activists as few campaigns in the past have. The international expansion of Free Basics, which is already available in 37 countries, has profound global ramifications for current media and internet policy debates. For example, in Latin America, digital rights advocates fear that the arrival of Free Basics might have put an end to all government efforts to continue to expand internet access for its citizens. Regulators in the region might pride themselves with fostering internet access, but when the ‘walled garden’ of Facebook becomes the primary way for the poor to experience the internet, Free Basics, as one Brazilian protestor put it, might be conceived as meaning “Free of Basic Rights.” On the African continent, even though Free Basics started in Zambia and spread to 19 other countries in the region, citizens are especially skeptical towards the motives of foreign for-profit companies. African critics believe that Facebook’s initiative is not about providing a ‘free’ service, but rather a means of long term control.[3] India’s decision to ban Free Basics has reignited debates surrounding the service and may bring internet policy officials from other countries to reevaluate their stances towards Facebook.

Another reason for the staunch opposition has been Facebook’s political communication efforts in promoting Free Basics, which have drawn criticism for being manipulative and arrogant – most notably articulated in an open letter signed by 40 international digital rights groups to Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg. Facebook officials tried to downplay the global opposition to their India initiative as coming only from a numerically insignificant and obscure group of critics. Supporters in the media argued the initiative failed because Facebook did not properly communicate the service, however, it is unlikely that the Free Basics ban in India was due to miscommunication as global advocacy organizations involved knew the specifics of the program. Instead, it seems that Facebook underestimated the ability of international digital rights groups to counter-frame the Indian case in terms of global concerns over surveillance, net neutrality and techno-colonialism. As Josh Levy, Advocacy Director at Access Now, put it, “As we all know, the internet is global. It’s vital that open internet supporters in the United States, Latin America, Africa, and beyond show solidarity with advocates in India. An attack on Net Neutrality in India is an attack on it everywhere.”

 

[1] Tarrow, S. (2005). The New Transnational Activism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] For example, in Uganda, there is no meaningful privacy legislation established and surveillance is used to crush any political activism; in Colombia the presence of guerilla movements and paramilitary groups has contributed to a strict surveillance apparatus that can seem more threatening than NSA spying; and the biggest U.S.-based offline protest campaign, ‘Stop Watching Us’, despite featuring an international roster of activists, was primarily concerned with the changing Section 215 of the PATRIOT ACT.

[3] It is also worth noting that many African countries with Free Basics are authoritarian regimes, where, as opposed to India, the public had no stake in the discussion surrounding Free Basics adaptation.

 

Till Waescher is a PhD candidate at the School for International and Intercultural Communication at TU Dortmund University, and a research fellow at the Institute for Media and Communication Policy in Cologne, Germany. In his dissertation he examines political communication strategies of transnational privacy advocacy groups in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks.

Till completed his master’s studies in Political Science at the University of Potsdam and American Studies at Free University in Berlin, Germany. Parallel to his academic career, he has been a frequent contributor to German online media outlets and participated in various media policy consulting projects in Germany. His research interests include social movement communications, surveillance studies, media concentration, and media policy.

 

Photo Credit: “FSMK’s walkathon in support of NetNeutrality.jpg” by Viggy prabhu is liscensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0

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