Weavers Of Misinformation
I think dramebaazi is in our blood. These past couple of days, the posts on Facebook have been so, so amusing. Here we are...a race that won’t bat an eyelid to pay that extra money to jump a queue, be it in a temple or for a bus...and we are huffing and puffing about “net neutrality”. I bet many heard that terminology only when some doofus put up a survey question on Facebook. But what happened in the last couple of days had me laughing so much – that innocuous piece of “code” circled in red had everyone jumping around like monkeys on brandy. I tell you, it would not have made a fig of difference if it was like IAmAGorilla. Indians now had one more division – those who used a tri-colour filter on their FB profile photo and those who did not. Seriously, I have not laughed so much for a long time – I mean, I even read comments floating conspiracy theories that Mark Zuckerberg was seeking world domination...yeah, like a typical James Bond villain. Ironically, these “suspicious” comments were made by people who are logged on to Facebook all the time.
More than that, the demonisation of what essentially is a fantastic initiative belies my senses. I am talking about internet.org. Before I discuss internet.org, it is essential to understand what net neutrality means. There are many articles on the internet that explain the concept lucidly with many examples. For the purpose of this blog, here is my brief explanation.
Let’s say you are an Airtel subscriber, and your friend is a Vodafone subscriber. Now let’s say both Amazon and Flipkart have apps that allow you to browse their stores, do retail transactions etc from your device. Irrespective of whether you have Airtel or Vodafone services on your mobile, you and your friend should be able to access both Amazon and Flipkart apps. The apps may or may not be free, but, which app you choose to use...that is under YOUR control. This equal access is the key. That’s net neutrality. The service provider is content-neutral. He simply does his job of delivering the content. Like the Transporter.
What happens when net neutrality is not there? Let us assume Amazon got an idea. They go to Airtel and say, “Hey...we see your subscriber base has increased a lot this year. Why don’t we tie up? Here is $$$. Make sure our app reaches your entire subscriber base.” The result – let’s say you go to an Airtel office to activate/renew your subscription. The sales guy tells you, “Hey! Here is a new plan – it costs only five rupees more, but Amazon app is free.” We all like free things. We go for that. But what if you are a fan of Flipkart? Ah! The Airtel guy tells you, “We don’t support that app anymore. But if you want it, you have to go for a more expensive data plan.” Or something on those lines. In other words, Airtel is favouring Amazon. On the other hand, you find out that if you are on Vodafone, you can get Flipkart app for free. But you don’t like Vodafone. And that’s what happens when net neutrality is lost. The service providers like Airtel, Vodafone etc will now control the content that can be delivered to your device based on how much you can pay. That sucks...that model destroys the internet and what it stands for.
But how on earth did Facebook threaten net neutrality (according to the Moaners of Facebook moaning on Facebook)? Ah. It all started with Mark's audacious plan. We all know that internet has become an invaluable part of our lives. From searching for a recipe to figuring out the symptoms of depression, we are constantly logged on. In my life, the internet has been a large part of my education – both academic and otherwise. I am sure it is the same with millions of you who are connected. But there are many millions who don’t have access to the internet. So Mark thought, what if every single person on the earth is connected to the internet, and enjoys similar benefits as us privileged ones?
To understand Mark’s goal, (or indeed, to understand any social debate), I use my domestic help’s point of view as reference. This is because she represents the many grass-root millions. Gowramma is our help back home in India (indeed I seem to collect “Gowris” when it comes to help). Gowramma is uneducated from an academic perspective, but I’d say she is very much educated when it comes to life itself. She is fiercely independent, very aware of social causes and more than anything, she is also aware of her rights – as a woman, as a citizen. She has two children – both in their late teens. Her husband sells flowers. Gowramma works as a maid in a couple of houses all morning. She then goes home, sorts out the chores, and sits down for threading the flowers for selling in the market. Her only aim, like all parents, is to see her children well-educated and well-settled. Her biggest fear is that her daughter should not end up like her – scrubbing dishes and sweeping floors. Her son was studying a Bachelors degree in Business Management, while her daughter is studying for a B.A. I think her son dropped out of the course unfortunately, but is now employed. Her daughter is very studious, and Gowramma has dreams of seeing the girl in a good office job.
Gowramma stays in a tiny rented house. It is spic and span, tightly packed with hopes and dreams of what her children can become. I’ve been to her place a number of times – the first time to install my old desktop in their room, so her college-going children can use it. Internet is out of question – there is no telephone point to the house, as is the case for millions of such houses. But the kids knew about Microsoft Office, and wanted to “practice” it...especially MS Word. If not anything, they could start off as data-entry operators somewhere.
This year during my visit, I was browsing a second-hand books store when my eyes fell on a “banking” book. It was one of those practice books for banking officer’s exams. If you were a degree student, chances are you’d have taken this exam. It’s a common format exam that gets you into nationalised banks and insurance sectors in a clerical role. As a government job, it offers unbeatable security. I immediately thought of Gowramma’s daughter, Archana. Of course! She is in her final year of B.A. now. If she could prepare and attempt the exams, she has a real fighting chance to get a government job! As a graduate, she would also start in a better grade. I bought the text book for her. More than the text book, I wished she could get guidance. I searched for tutor-led classes which she could attend over the weekends. I discovered a whole bunch of question banks and free tutorials on the internet, and I wished she could access them. She was too shy to come over to our place and use our computer. If she needed access to the internet, she had to visit a cafe, which was not possible for her. She said she’d manage with the text book.
I think of internet.org in Archana's context. She is bright, intelligent and a fast learner. She just needs that access to right information at the right time – she will be lifted straight out of her current circumstances. She will not have to depend on someone telling her of job openings, or about new learning materials. Everything would be at her fingertips. Not only that, a stable job means she will be able to provide her family with a better life. That’s exactly what Mark has envisioned. As a non-profit, internet.org’s mandate was to bundle a ‘limited’ version of the internet for people like Archana for free. What does limited mean? Perhaps one won’t be able to download songs, buy things online, watch movies etc. But a basic bundle will be accessible – things that matter most to Archana – sites that help her in academics and learning, job searches, local weather (maybe more useful for her father to decide which flowers to buy in bulk), sites on health etc. That would also help her experience the power of the internet (for the right reasons).
But how can this internet bundle be delivered to houses where there is no telephone line? The obvious answer was mobile devices. Since Facebook is not an ISP, they had to partner with someone – in India, they partnered with Reliance. All RCom subscribers would get a free internet.org app on their mobile phones. The app included a number of websites pre-bundled – the first gateway to experience the internet for someone who cannot afford a full-fledged internet connection. If you want to know more, please read here.
So why was there such a hue and cry? Why did everyone feel so threatened as if the food on their plates was being snatched away? After all, no money was paid to Mark or any of his organisations for this initiative – it was a voluntary sign-up by all the participating websites. So in the real sense, there was no violation of net neutrality.
It would appear that the bone of contention was this - if Archana opened that internet.org app, she would see, amongst other websites, Facebook too. But no twitter or any other social media sites. That was monopoly, according to many. If Archana wanted to take a look at the jobs portal, her only option would be babajobs.com or timesjob. And so, many felt this was very unfair. Why is Archana not having access to twitter, or other similar social networking sites? In fact, why should Archana only search on Bing which comes pre-loaded, and not on Google? Why does Archana not have the option of searching for jobs on Monster? People forgot that bandwidth is not cheap; no carrier will be able to stream a “full-fledged” internet for free. Even so, they yelled, How dare Mark do this? How can he control what Archana can see on her mobile? It is another thing that without this initiative, Archana cannot even get on to the internet. That’s fine by the honourable, learned social media activists. Their debate is something like this...we honourable lot have devices costing more than what Gowramma’s family will ever earn annually; we can all log on to 4G or whatever superfast speed is available; we can all spend comfortably on the most outstanding data plans that will allow us to Skype with loved ones, play real-time video games with people sitting in Moscow and Shangai and LA, stream movies, read books; we can learn languages and guitar and painting on the internet...we can do so many cool things! But a poor girl like Archana? No. She can’t have even a teensy bit of it for free. Just to make her life a little easier. Oh no no. She should have it all or nothing. And that’s the logic on which the whole net neutrality debate has raged on.
When did we become such losers? When did we become so self-centred, so holier-than-thou that we must sit on our lofty pedestals and enjoy the benefits of modern technology – and pontificate when someone attempts to include the less-privileged into this fold?
Next time, before you share a link, please do ask yourself if you have truly understood the issue. Otherwise, you will be indulging in needless fear-mongering and stoking fire to ridiculous conspiracy theories. And for heaven's sake, stop participating in hashtag trends started by newspapers who also want you to look at "hot and wet celebs in towels".
© Sumana Khan - 2015