Opinion: A tip for Free Basics - engage more, sell less

Mark Zuckerberg's aim to provide free internet to millions of Indians is a lofty one. But Jaideep Shergill, co-founder of Pitchfork Partners, explores how Facebook has gone the wrong way about promoting its message and the difficulties the Free Basics project now faces

Jaideep Shergill
Jaideep Shergill

In India, giving something for free is looked upon favourably. But desperation to do so invites great suspicion. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is finding that out the hard way.

Having sunk millions into a crusade to launch Free Basics – Internet.org 2.0, if you will – he lobbied hard with the government, industry bodies and even wrote for that oh-so-90s medium, a newspaper, to give the initiative a coat of acceptance.

Likening it to philanthropy and institutions such as libraries and hospitals, he wondered why anyone would oppose it.

People lined up to tell him exactly why. Facebook stands accused of trying to curb net neutrality, offering a "walled garden" in which users could access only what it chose to let them.

Influencers such as entrepreneur Mahesh Murthy presented an impassioned argument against Free Basics.

"I think we consumers should have the ability to pick whichever social network, job site and search engine we want – and not leave it to some rapacious telco or social network to decide what we should use."

Tim Berners Lee, the father of the World Wide Web, chimed in: "Of course, [net neutrality] is not just about blocking and throttling. It is also about stopping ‘positive discrimination’, such as when one internet operator favours one particular service over another. If we don’t explicitly outlaw this, we hand immense power to telcos and online service operators."

Facebook launched a counter-argument, claiming that internet access should be viewed as a basic right.

In a country with roughly a billion people still not connected to the net, Zuckerberg pointed out that he is trying to create an ecosystem of partners – from news to maternal health to local government – that users could access without charge.

But, Facebook’s PR machinery hasn’t been able to effectively counter the charge that allowing free access to Facebook and its partners is, effectively, conditional access.

What you would end up with is ‘differential charges’ to access specific websites. If Facebook’s sole aim is to create internet access for millions, why not let them choose what they do and view online, argue critics.

Whatever the merits or demerits of the initiative, Facebook took a serious PR stumble by getting more than a million users to email the telecom regulator expressing support for Free Basics.

Within days, it faced a storm of allegations that it tricked users into supporting Free Basics.

"Facebook deceived users into bombarding the regulator with emails supporting Free Basics but even then did not answer the regulator’s questions on differential pricing," said Kiran Jonnalagadda, who is part of the SaveTheInternet movement that launched a counter-campaign.

Rattled, the telecom regulator ordered a freeze on Free Basics.

While many, including I, see genuine value in Free Basics, much will depend on how effectively Facebook communicates the value it is bringing to the table. What it needs is a sustained dialogue with opponents to assuage their fears and tweak the service where required.

Net neutrality has been an emotive issue in India and too many think Facebook is on the wrong side of the debate.

Zuckerberg will need to get even more involved than he has been in the debate because the outcome of the initiative in India may well determine Free Basics’ fate across the world (Egypt suspended it, possibly taking a cue from India) and may impact Facebook itself – India is its second-largest user base.

If converting sceptics into believers was the aim of the Free Basics campaign, it had limited results. What it needs now is less hardsell, more engagement. 

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