FREE BASICS- it’s on everyone’s Facebook timeline, and newsfeed. It is in the newspapers and all over social media. Some are against it, some are for it- but no one can escape knowing about it.
First, let us try to understand what exactly is Free Basics. It is essentially a mobile application, consisting of a bouquet of certain services, provided free of cost (no data charges to be applied). The charges are incurred by the mobile operators. Currently, in India, only users of Reliance Communication can access Free Basics.
In the few weeks since Facebook has rolled out this feature, we have been bombarded with criticism from all quarters. A section of critics has termed it as Facebook’s version of a walled garden, wherein users are limited to information provided and approved by Facebook. Free Basics is also said to go against net neutrality.
According to Facebook, the target audience of this service is rural India, where internet access for all is still not a reality, and where it can change the lives of many, particularly women. Khabar Lahariya— a weekly newspaper run and published by women in multiple languages—has released a video and an audio clip that give some insights into how some rural women view the service. And, according to them, Free Basics is a restrictive, yet harmless service. Restrictive, because without access to services such as Google and YouTube, internet usage will not be of significant help to anyone. However, the clip also mentions that access to even basic applications can prove to be very useful to many rural women, as it can provide them with information, and an experience of internet, which is otherwise very expensive.
In a recent news article, Sheryl Sandberg was quoted as saying “Globally, four billion people lack internet access, most of them women. In the developing world, nearly 25 per cent fewer women than men are connected; in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s 45 per cent. This inequality of access is holding back progress towards a safer, fairer, and healthier world.” This is a key point, and one of the core reasons why Free Basics should be adopted and encouraged in a developing country like India.
Among the people who I have brought up this issue with, the general feedback has been that Free Basics could serve as a gateway to the internet, wherein women familiarize themselves with the nooks and crannies of the world wide web, and based on requirement and interest, pay for those applications and websites, which are of relevance to them. While it may not provide them with full access to the internet, it is a good way to introduce millions of rural women to the advantages of internet.
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