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Are Indians too stupid to be trusted with free Internet?

Meet the new colonialists. They're white, wealthy and want your modem

Comment Spurred on by wealthy white activists, the Indian telecoms regulator TRAI has stepped in to save poor Indians from themselves. Western elites think they shouldn’t get free internet.

Earlier today, India banned differential pricing for data, a move which outlaws any kind of any out-of-bundle data package. That happens to include a rudimentary data service called Facebook Free Basics, aimed at rural Indians who cannot afford full internet access. Free Basics has launched in over of the 30 of world’s poorest populations.

Now, even if you find Facebook the company a self-serving, sanctimonious and creepy organisation – as I do – the decision is troubling, as it suggests that colonial thinking is alive and well, particularly amongst the Whole Earth-shopping chattering classes.

The campaign against free internet implies that the poor are too stupid to be allowed a choice, and must be saved from making that choice.

I think people are right to be wary when Facebook turns up with a gift horse. It’s a powerful company that benefited from supplanting open protocols. I’d prefer Zuckerberg campaigned for access to electricity, rather than access to the internet, and created electricity grids for the poor, rather than social networks.

But that’s just my individual value judgement. No one pretends Facebook is operating Free Basics out of altruism. Naturally, we should look every gift horse in the mouth.

But objections to Facebook’s Free Basics tend to come from people who don’t know, or can’t understand, what it is. Have a look for yourself. Free Basics rather like a couple of free Compuserve channels, with the weather and a tatty village council noticeboard. It’s like a very, very dumb fragment of AOL that fell through a time machine from the mid 1990s. Nobody could mistake the Basics walled garden experience for the full internet.

Yet two thirds of the planet today doesn’t have the internet because it’s way more expensive than they can afford. For people who earn $1 a day, then, Basics is an entry point into a world that was previously out of their reach. The poorest can now get real-time information, and communicate electronically. They can sell stuff electronically too, and deal with customers. They can use it to organise socially and politically.

Yet all this must be discarded now that India has decided to ban it. It’s back to expensive phone calls (for which the poorest pay the highest per-minute tariffs), or nothing at all. No telecoms regulator has ever electronically disenfranchised so many people in one swoop.

Crude but useful data services like these are being banned in India after a Western-originated campaign. Where’s next?

Two logical conclusions seem to follow. One is that Indians are basically incapable of making a rational choice, so must be nannied and protected from themselves. Neither you nor I would dream of giving up the full internet for Free Basics, not even to save a few quid. But banning it suggests that Indians themselves must be spared the choice – in case they make the wrong choice.

Now bear in mind that India is urbanising at an astonishingly rapid rate. Many of today’s $1-a-day workers will be tomorrow’s middle class. McKinsey estimates the middle class will grow from around 50m in 2007 to almost 600m by 2025. That’s a lot of people who’ll be able to afford the full internet. But TRAI’s decision supposes that poor Indians won’t make the choices we’d make, as wealthy Westerners. Instead, rather like helpless addicts, they’ll be “hooked” on the dozen channels offered by Free Basics. And they’ll stay hooked.

The campaign against Basics offers us another strange deduction, which is that the Neutralists think the open internet is so unattractive, it can’t win in a straight fight against a minimal fragment of AOL from 1996. Let’s park that one and come back to it another day.

Last week a US GOP-aligned group, Protect Internet Freedom, published a dig at the not-so-subtle racism behind the Zero Rating jihadis, who it describes (accurately) as “the most vocal anti-zero rating Internet elites in the U.S. — academics, venture capitalists, and technology leaders.” To drive the point home, they pointed out how wealthy the no-free-internet-for-you brigade are. They call them the “Zero Access Country Club”. You can have a look here, at https://nointernetforpoorpeople.com.com

The campaign to deprive the poor of rudimentary free data access is driven through funded groups such as Access Now, which in turn is funded by a Facebook rival, Google. Google has its own preferred model for getting the poor online, which in turn requires turning them into Matrix-style data batteries, much as we are here in the West. It’s up to you which model you think is superior; we merely note that while Facebook (to our knowledge) isn’t trying to ban Google’s model, Google is fighting to ban Facebook’s model. In India, it has just notched up another victory.

A decade ago, net neutrality started with the noblest intentions, warning us of the dangers of vertical collusion between large telcos and large media companies. But that seems a long time ago now. Somewhere along the way it turned into a nagging, hectoring, nannying movement that today is preoccupied with grabbing modems from the hands of the poorest people in the world.

Give your heads a shake, Neutralists, and ask yourselves whether you really want to go down as the imperialists of the 21st Century. ®

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