World Bank opposes Free Basics, says its a distortion of markets

Indian demonstrators of Free Software Movement Karnataka hold placards during a protest against Facebook’s Free Basics initiative, in Bangalore. (AFP Photo)

Mark Zuckerberg’s Free Basics, the service that offers limited free access to certain sites and services on the internet that has run into trouble with Indian authorities, has picked up yet another opponent, the World Bank.

In its World Development Report released on Wednesday the bank called Free Basics, the “antithesis of net neutrality and a distortion of markets”.

The bank is not opposing Free Basics specifically, or its Indian rollout. It believes any attempt to throttle the net anywhere in the world, by any service, is a threat to fundamental human rights. Facebook renamed its limited access web service Free Basics in Spetember.

“The recent trend to develop services in which some basic content can be accessed free of data charges (such as Facebook’s Free Basics or, while other content is subject to data charges, would appear to be the antithesis of net neutrality and a distortion of markets,” the report said.

Titled World Development Report: Digital Dividends, it argues, broadly, while digital technologies have spread rapidly, the impact has not been felt equally and equitably.

Read | Facebook struggles to justify mails sent from Free Basics to TRAI

“Net neutrality” is a concept that seeks equal access to the internet for all users, businesses and clients both, denying service providers the right to charge more for more.

Under Free Basics, which is available in 37 countries, users can access a basic range of internet services — including sites such as Wikipedia and AccuWeather on their mobile phones for free.

A part of Facebook’s initiative, Free Basics was launched in India in 2015 with a few basic services. It was relaunched later with a larger bouquet of services.

But it had to be shut down last December as Trai, the Indian telecom regulator began looking into pricing rules that are expected to be announced later this month. Free Basics may stay, or go.

World Bank’s opposition tracks closely with that of a large number of activists India — not conspiracy theorists — who fear Free Basics threatens basic rights to internet.

Zuckerberg, and his supporters, have defended the scheme, asking rhetorically, “Who wouldn’t want free internet?” Even if, the argument goes, it came with limited access, limited services.

The World Bank, in this report co-authored by Indian economist Deepak Mishra, sides with those who tend to see this as a right as much in need of protection as any basic human right.

“An open and free internet is also a key contributing factor to innovation in the digital economy, making it critical to protect this openness,” the report said.

“Care should be taken to ensure that users have the greatest possible access to internet-based content, applications, and services of their choice,” the report added.

It also pitched for a fair deal for service providers arguing for a “balance” to incentivise innovations “to build out and continuously improve networks and network capacity”.

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