This past winter, I went home to Mumbai for the holidays. While I was there, I was struck by the massive billboards for Facebook’s Free Basics everywhere. Beyond their sheer size, there was something unusual about their message: for instance, one of them had a picture of a family in rural India with the copy “Support [name of person]” followed by a description of how internet connectivity through Free Basics helped this farmer access better cropping techniques and grow his income. Over the course of my two weeks in India, I noticed a media blitzkrieg by Facebook, aggressively championing its “zero ratings” Internet service.


Before it was banned last week, Free Basics had been in operation in India since late 2013 through a Facebook partnership with a single Indian telecom provider.  It’s a lightweight version of the Internet accessed through Facebook, that provides access to a select range of services like the BBC, Wikipedia, some health and weather sites, and Facebook itself. Designed to load quickly for slower 2G and 3G networks, it’s available in 36 countries. The purpose? A quick, cheap way to make the Internet affordable for India’s poor.

Undoubtedly, connecting the “one billion unconnected” is a noble cause at first glance. So, why then did India’s national telecom regulation authority choose to ban Free Basics just last week?  The ruling came on the heels of a larger decision to ban differential pricing agreements (also called zero ratings agreements) in favor of net neutrality. Zero rating paved the way for Free Basics, by allowing mobile network operators — the local service providers in India —  to waive charges to end customers for data used by specific Internet services — in this case, Facebook — through their network.

Messaging that was too localized for its own good?

Coming out of an almost year-long debate between Facebook and the Indian authorities, the decision has been lauded by proponents of net neutrality and major American publications.  There’s an immediate demand that we examine the issue critically: we’re seeing a shift toward global connectivity as a basic human right. As technology is increasingly deployed across every facet of life, the decision to limit that access for specific groups of people in developing countries has been criticized as a kind of colonialism. It might have been easier to dismiss this critique as hyperbolic had Facebook done better to fix that perception. Take its massive media campaign highlighting model beneficiaries of Free Basics — the poor farmer, the ambitious student from humble beginnings — that called for Indians to “support digital equality”.

Through these types of generic messaging, the campaign positioned the brand-customer relationship as one of benefactor-beneficiary – not something you’d want for your brand in a world where customers largely own their journey to purchase. (And, fueling the fire, Facebook Board member and VC fund owner Marc Andreessen found himself retracting an offensive tweet criticizing the decision to ban Free Basics.) It’s up to marketers to moderate and appropriately localize messaging when making forays into new regions — with a sensitivity for how their campaigns will be received.

A single gatekeeper to connectivity

The good intentions of programs like Free Basics are clear, but Facebook’s cookie-cutter approach to implementing it in a market as complex as India isn’t the best connectivity solution for right now. It might need to take a harder look at who Free Basics will actually benefit and how the campaign was positioned. There is also a host of viable, already successful mobile alternatives like Jana that prove why.

I think Free Basics didn’t — and probably won’t — work in India for a few reasons. It’s more than just an ethical debate around unbiased access and net neutrality. It has to do with the way Facebook chose to position the campaign, but also with its understanding (or lack thereof) of its audience, and the presence of viable alternatives.

Here at Percolate, we talk about 2016 being the year of the platform. What this means is that new technologies are being developed on top of existing, robust solutions. Facebook has already established itself as the foundational layer for social businesses, external applications (you know it annoys you when you don’t see a “Log in through Facebook” option), advertisers, and most recently, on-demand services like Uber. With Free Basics, Facebook is gunning to be the Internet platform of the not-so-distant future. Free Basics makes Facebook the gatekeeper of connectivity for millions of first-time users for whom the application is the first (and single) point of entry to the Internet. In a net-neutral world, this violates the basic principle that governments and Internet service providers should treat all data on the Internet as equal.

This single-gatekeeper model is particularly problematic for a country as culturally and geographically diverse as India. Bringing Indians online is not as simple as putting them all on a uniform data plan: it means that Indians in every corner of the country would be given access to the same (limited) set of digital information, entertainment, and advertisements, irrespective of religion, gender, or income level. You can see the full list of free sites that were being offered here.

Free Basics for Brands

As a marketer, it’s hard to leave the discussion without a nod to what services like Free Basics mean for advertisers (sneak peek: it’s not great). With more people coming online in general, the addressable audience for brands is growing too. Zero ratings services don’t create a democratic marketplace for brands to reach the broadest possible base of potential customers in emerging markets, especially where tech adoption is lower.

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As an alternative — and out of the net neutrality crosshairs — business model that some applications have adopted is to offer mobile data entirely free. Lessons from mobile money ventures in developing countries show that free services see higher adoption. And in the medium-to-long term, people will begin to recognize the value of paid services and come on board as paying customers. Brands struggling to reach an unconnected audience stand to gain more from an alternate digital environment, where people who access the Internet for free today can become their customers tomorrow. With access comes knowledge, productivity, and overall socioeconomic gains, and the network effects to be leveraged from that are far more beneficial to any economy and society than temporarily accessing a preselected group of websites.

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How free and basic can connectivity be?

In his op-ed in the Times of India, Zuckerberg tries to equate free basic internet to free basic healthcare, education, and other necessities. But why should the Internet — that has until now been a glorious, untamed universe of information available to all — be subject to limitations hashed out in a corporate boardroom? Things like public infrastructure are a basic necessity to connect and move people and goods safely and freely. Similarly, the Internet can’t do what it was created for — move information, no matter its origin, between people — if it’s to be repackaged and virtually owned by a small subset of brands. To take the infrastructure analogy a step further, if the purpose of roads, bridges, and railways is to act as connectors between the nodes in a larger system, connectivity can’t fulfill its basic purpose if those nodes are substituted for a single, central command center.

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