Looking around the world economy today, the big bright spot is thought to be India. So, last Monday, when the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) told founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg that he couldn’t quite do what he wanted to do there, the proverbial cow-dung was always going to hit the fan.
Soon enough, it did.
For customers of its giant Indian telco partner Reliance Communications, Facebook planned to extend its ‘free basics’ service, which since 2014 has provided limited internet access to more than 30 other countries, into the land that was once the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. ‘Free basics’ would have allowed some of India’s smartphone users to use Facebook’s app, and certain websites, for nothing.
Well, what’s wrong with that? The answer is that it contradicts ‘net neutrality’ – the pompous doctrine, proposed by the lawyer at the office of the New York state attorney general, Timothy Wu, that imposing charges for access to the internet amounts to discrimination, and should thus be subject to regulation.
One might well wonder how offering free, if restricted, internet access to people who might otherwise not have that privilege is a sin against humanity. But for the enlightened digerati, Facebook’s move could give it greater control over access to the internet. Seeing the thin end of a wedge, TRAI therefore announced what one enthusiast called ‘the most broad and the most stringent set of regulations on differential pricing which exists anywhere in the world’.
Moaning about ‘digital colonialism’
Now wait a moment. If, in an emergency, you had to pay to get your ailing granny’s fat digital surgery files rushed over the internet from one hospital to another, you might give in and try to find some way of stumping up the cash. But even if you did this as an Indian in India, paying through the nose for the purchase of such a service wouldn’t amount to falling victim to imperialist oppression. What’s at stake here isn’t ‘digital colonialism’, as Nandan Nilekani, the billionaire co-founder of Infosys, Bangalore, decried it.
It’s wrong to compare the unfair pricing, to Indian consumers, of services fielded by the dreaded IT quadrumvirate GAFA – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – with the consistent denials that the British Raj made to the democratic rights of Indians. Colonialism in India meant no real rights for Indians to govern themselves. By contrast, free access to the internet isn’t a right, any more than free healthcare and free education are rights. These are things that the working class all over the world might properly feel entitled to after years of struggle. But rights are about freedom from state interference, from the ‘protections’ of the state. Otherwise, anybody complaining about anything anywhere would have a right to it, in which case rights would mean nothing at all.