Free Basics

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Since the launch of Facebook’s Free Basics Internet service, it has lurched from one controversy to the next. One of these was the suspension of the service in Egypt in December last year. At the time, the Authorities in Egypt claimed the service was suspended because the license given to the operator for the service had expired. The license was for an initial period of two months. No explanation was given as to why the license was not renewed. Etisalat, the telecoms operator of the service in Egypt, did not inform the public if it applied for a new license or it’s doing anything to upturn the decision to ban Free Basics. Facebook also refused to comment.

Free Basics

There were speculations then that the Government was afraid of social networks due to their role in the uprising that brought down the Government of Hosni Mubarak. It turned out the rumors were partially correct. According to an exclusive report, sources who knew what transpired in discussions between Facebook and the Government, claimed the sticking point was over security and surveillance. Basically, the Egyptian government wanted Facebook to give it access to be able to monitor people using the Free Basics Internet service. Facebook refused to grant access. The result was the non-renewal of the service after the initial two months.

Though it was unclear what kind of access the government wanted (that is, whether it wanted complete access or just just enough to monitor some aspects of what people are using the Free Basics service for), it does not require too much thought to know that that kind of power in the hands of Government is not always good. It is the sort of monitoring intelligence services around the world need to spy on their citizens. And since one of Facebook’s core principles is protection of users’ privacy, the demand by the Egyptian Government was always going to be a problem.

Free BasicsFacebook’s Free Basics, which is available in 37 countries, suffered a somewhat similar fate in India. Though the reason for banning Free Basics in India are poles apart from the case in Egypt. For India it was about net neutrality issues. The Indian government claimed Free Basic as is practiced violated a cardinal tenet of online business: that all data and Internet traffic should be treated equally. But Free Basics violated that rule by offering only certain services free to the public.

But in countries like Angola, where there is a Free Basics too, some citizens have found a way to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the service. Users upload and share content on Wikimedia, which is also part of the bouquet of Free websites under Free Basics in Angola. This is causing copyright concerns for Facebook. Most of the content uploaded and shared through Wikimedia are copyrighted materials, which implies that Free Basics is being utilized as a vehicle for Internet piracy.

All the issues and problems facing Free Basics underlines the delicate balancing work big corporations like Facebook have to be adept at. On one hand, people’s privacy have to be protected online and on the other hand, Governments demand that absolute privacy is not possible in a bid to make a country safe. This issue is not restricted to poor countries with oppressive governments alone though, as the case of the FBI vs Apple clearly showed.


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