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On Free Basics: There is no such thing as a free lunch – Amitabha Bagchi, IIT Delhi

amitabha-bagchiby Amitabha Bagchi, IIT Delhi

The founder of Facebook visited our institute (IIT Delhi) and made a strong pitch for a service that provides Internet access for “free” to underserved people in countries like India. This service is now called Free Basics and was earlier known as Internet.org.

The arguments in favour of such a service are evident: they are in fact the arguments in favour of connecting underprivileged people to the Internet. The arguments against this service generally come from the direction of what is known as “Net neutrality,” an idea that all Internet Service Providers must give all web services an equal playing field. I am not looking to further that argument here, although I think it has some merit. (Editor: more on that here)

Instead I want to consider another issue, more relevant from a data science perspective. Clearly all the users who access the Internet through Free Basics will be creating long and rich histories of usage that the service will log. This data can and, sooner or later, will be monetised by the owner of the data, which will be Facebook. For now let us assume (and this is a huge assumption) that the privacy of these people as individuals will not be breached. Let us assume that the monetisation will be done using data aggregates that do not leak data (another massive and utopian assumption), even then the value inherent in this data, data generated by Indian users, will be Facebook’s.

Now, it is fair enough that if Facebook provides a service they get something in return. Except there are two problems.

  1. Why is the “free” nature of the service being extolled at such length? Why is it not being made clear that user data is a (natural?) resource that is being generated and is passing into the hands of the service provider?
  2. If user data is a resource that is going into the hands of Facebook, that’s okay, but why is no attempt being made to value it and why is the Indian state not a beneficiary to some extent the way it is, when say coal licences are given, or spectrum is allocated?

I am completely onboard with the idea that monetising this data may take a lot of effort and high tech, and a lot of time, and the entity that is able to invest the money and effort needed to monetise it should benefit. Of course it should. But shouldn’t the community that generated this data also benefit from the value inherent in the data? Isn’t that the logic applied to natural resources as well?


Amitabha Bagchi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Delhi.

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