Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Stop fretting over Flipkart and Airtel Zero: Worry about Google, Facebook instead

Stop fretting over Flipkart and Airtel Zero: Worry about Google, Facebook instead
Here’s something all of us protesting against Airtel Zero must know: In 2013, search giant Google had struck a deal with telecom major Bharti Airtel to offer Free Zone, in this case giving people up to one gigabyte per month of free access to Gmail, Google+, and Google search.
But almost no one in India had anything to say about it then. There were the few random critics but nothing even close to the kind of backlash they are receiving over Airtel Zero.
In essence, both are similar. Then, Google was paying for our access. In Airtel Zero, other companies will pay for our access.
The only difference is that now social media has sort of goaded us all into reacting. It has also forced Flipkart to cut its ties with the Airtel Zero plan — the criticism was getting simply too hot to handle and for a site that makes all its money online, it simply wasn’t worth it.
We’d like to think that Airtel will follow suit. But for the moment, according to an interview on ET Now, they aren’t going anywhere.
“The whole genesis of this was the launch of our product Airtel Zero. It was a very simple product. We are making stuff free for customers and we are getting businesses to pay for it. It is actually an innovative platform. It’s been done in many parts of the world. It’s an industry practise. We believe it is a way of getting a billion customers on the internet,” Vittal told ET Now.
In fact, the truth is that despite the Flipkart pullout, the fight is far from over. Rather, in many senses, it is just beginning. TRAI has released a consultation paper with 20 questions spread across 118 pages and wants you to send them an e-mail by April 24, 2015. And while it is important to lobby against any violation of net neutrality that may be in the offing, it is perhaps even more important that realise that plans like Airtel Zero have been around for a while; to realise that the violations were already taking place.
Airtel’s proposal isn’t anything radically different from what many mobile carriers are already doing in countries as diverse as Phillippines, Kenya and more.
In essence, these deals (we have also had similar deals between Vodafone and Facebook in India as well) give people free access to text-only version of ‘essentials’ like Facebook, Gmail, and the first page of search results under plans like Facebook Zero or Google Free Zone. But when you click on a link that takes you beyond this walled garden, that is when the data charges come into the mix.
A lot of us may think of as a great initiative. But what is it really?
It is a fight to get people to experience the internet through their sites first. It is also a fight to get them on to their platform and keep them there. So much so that the association between the internet and these sites changes to a point where these sites/services become the internet themselves.
Susan Crawford, visiting professor of law at Harvard University  and a co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, calls it “a big concern” that Google and Facebook are the ones becoming the portal to Web content for many newcomers.
“For poorer people, Internet access will equal Facebook. That’s not the Internet—that’s being fodder for someone else’s ad-targeting business,” she says. “That’s entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination—a crucial limitation on human life.”
More than half the people in India are still not online, and while we may not like to say it — the internet isn’t exactly a priority or even an essential service for them. They will take to the internet at minimal cost and if that happens to be a plan like Airtel Zero then so be it.
And that is the truly dangerous bit. So while we worry and fret over Flipkart and Airtel, we need to realise that fight doesn’t end there. Rather it is about the big fish — namely Google and Facebook. And that really is the battle that all of India’s netizens need to be fighting. If they can convince TRAI that this will really hurt India in ways that go beyond the obvious then they can rest easy. They also need to spread the message that the word ‘free’ can’t really be applied in the true sense to such plans.
However, for now, we need to hold back on popping the champagne. Flipkart has stepped back. Airtel hasn’t. And the TRAI decision is a long way off.
Posted by : Gizmeon

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