America’s net neutrality debate moved to the backburner since the FCC posted its Open Internet rules a couple of months ago, but a related dispute is on full boil in India. And, hidden underneath the wonky telecommunications talk, there’s a deep criticism of Silicon Valley’s freemium model as a way to accomplish social justice.
The recent hubbub started when in February, Facebook announced the Indian launch of Internet.org in partnership with Reliance, one of India’s largest wireless carriers. Many observers (including me) have previously warned that Internet.org is little more than a bid by Mark Zuckerberg to collect those of the world’s eyeballs not already glued to a screen. His foray into India is confirmation.
But what has Indian netizens up in arms isn’t the eyeball grab. Surprisingly, they’re upset that Internet.org makes some online content—Facebook and Wikipedia, for example—available free to mobile customers. (Not to be outdone, Airtel—Internet.org's partner in Kenya—launched a similar service in India called Airtel Zero.) In a Facebook post about it, Zuckerberg writes, “To give more people access to the Internet, it is useful to offer some service for free.”
Free—that was the title of Chris Anderson’s 2010 book spotlighting the business model where some services are given away free, but customers who want premium features have to pay. Today, “freemium” is the mantra of Silicon Valley social entrepreneurs, who claim that they’re providing a social good when they have paying customers subsidize services for everyone else. What could possibly be wrong with that?
A lot, according to some. In a widely read essay, investor-entrepreneur Mahesh Murthy explains: “In effect, if Airtel doesn’t like YouTube, but wants to push its own video app Wynk, it wants the right to offer that for free, while charging you a bomb to access YouTube ... you can access Bing for free, but you have to pay to access Google; and you have access to BabaJob for free, while you have to pay for Naukri.com.”
The argument, in other words, is that we shouldn’t allow those who run the information superhighway to provide free lanes based on their own preferences, while there’s a toll for other traffic. In a separate post, Murthy goes as far as to say that Internet.org is “economic racism—exploiting the poor in under-developed parts of the world to become your customers under the guise of some apparent charitable purpose.” He’s not alone. A group of tech start-ups and Internet activists have gained momentum with an email campaign that’s resulted in a million complaints to the Telecom Authority of India.
When venture capitalists and tech activists start arguing that some types of free giveaways aren’t ethical and that freemium isn’t public service, something new and strange is going on. Hidden in their argument is a broader attack on under-regulated global capitalism.
Ever since political philosopher John Rawls, the justification for pro-business liberalism has been that we should consider any activity that makes even the least-privileged members of society better off a good thing. Outsourcing jobs to where labor is cheap, for example, is justified because everyone then has access to lower-cost goods. With Internet.org, Zuckerberg is making a similar Rawlsian argument: “If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.” And, I think most technology cheerleaders—including people like Murthy—would agree in the abstract: It would be a terrific thing to provide Wikipedia free to millions of Indian people who otherwise couldn’t afford a data plan. (Though, for other reasons, that wouldn’t be as philanthropic as it sounds.)
What’s not so terrific, net neutrality proponents say, is the power of Facebook and Airtel to decide what’s free and what’s not. In effect, the claim is that some values are more important than giving more individuals access to Wikipedia for free—values such as consumers’ right to choose without corporate bias and small start-ups’ ability to compete with multinational firms.
But if that’s true, then why stop with the Internet? Aren’t there larger questions that apply to globalization overall? Is it possible that some values are more important than giving more individuals the ability to purchase goods at the lowest possible price? Values such as every person’s right to make a decent living or mom-and-pop stores’ ability to compete with Walmart? What’s interesting about net neutrality is that whether advocates realize it or not, it’s intimately tied to a larger debate: Are there social values that are more important than low-cost goods for consumers and corporate freedom in the market? If you’re for net neutrality, what you’re saying is, yes!