On the contrary

In Defence of Walled Gardens

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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On the opposition to Free Basics in the name of the poor
One of the peculiar arguments made by opponents of Facebook’s Free Basics, a service that gives telecom consumers access to a limited set of applications without incurring data charges, is to throw illustrations of real life people who benefited from the internet. This was how Nandan Nilekani, one of the founders of Infosys, began a co-authored comment piece in The Times of India. He talked about Sanjay Sahni from a remote village in Bihar who, one day in Delhi, ‘got his hands on a computer and simply typed: “Nrega Bihar”.’ He found NREGA data about his village, proof of discrepancies, and that led the village to fight for its rights. The anecdote was rounded up with the lines: ‘Sahni’s crusade was only made possible because he had access to an open internet. Sanjay could enter data into any search engine, visit any website and find the relevant information. What if Sanjay’s first foray into the online world was not on the open internet, but through Facebook’s Free Basics platform? Would the same, freely published government information be available on Free Basics?’ The answer is obviously in the question itself, but then what if Sanjay Sahni had never got his hands to a computer at all? Should he forever be offline? Is the sole purpose of joining an online world to start revolutions?

Those who are against Free Basics say that even the poor would stay away from it if they are explained the issues at stake here, like the threat to net neutrality, where telecoms will start deciding the speed at which particular websites can be accessed. But somehow, most denunciations of Facebook’s evil designs are in English, aimed at an English audience, and the poor offline Bihari villager has no clue what is going on in his name.

If, however, some of them had access to Free Basics, then they would be able to read the numerous Facebook posts that had linked articles like Nilekani’s and could make an informed decision.

Arguments against Free Basics are pegged to the past or future because there is nothing to oppose in a free service that people can choose to avail of (or reject). Instead, you are either taken to a time when the idea of the internet and net neutrality came about or to a future when Free Basics could metamorphose into a demon that will carve out the online space into little parcels and there will be only walled gardens. Startups in the online space have reason to be anxious because walled gardens are not good for their business, but that is their problem and successful entrepreneurship is about overcoming entry barriers. There is no reason for an ordinary man to put their interests above his.

The Sanjay Sahni who never came across a computer ‘one day’ should take whatever comes free to him because that is one of the few lollipops that capitalism throws at him. Why should he wait for a government or another big corporation to give him the entire earth free instead of a walled garden? Give it first and then ask him to stay away from Free Basics. When he gets it, why would he choose to remain inside a walled garden? Walled gardens are very good for people who are locked up without sunlight.