Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Free Basics and Free Trade

Some people are angry at India for maintaining Net Neutrality! Marc Andreessen just tweeted (and then deleted) that this may be another mistake just like Anti-colonialism! He could not be more right!

Mr Andreessen's point is, of course, that India suffered from anti-colonialism! This, apart from proving that every smart people can be woefully silly at times, seems to come from some standard text that many Americans seem to cling to, even if they have no idea what colonialists did, where India is on the map and how it feels to be an Indian. Partly, some Indians contributed to this narrative, making a big deal of the liberalisation of the 90s (which, at best, has produced mixed results), though this confusion between Anti-colonialism and Import Substitution is rather uniquely American. An aside is that this does not show just ignorance about Indian history, but also America's, which was an inward-looking country sustained by trade barriers well into the twentieth century (it only converted to free trade when it was commercially ascendant). 

But all this silliness should not take credit away from Mr Andreessen's unwittingly insightful comparison between Anti-colonialism and Anti-Free Basics! The way to see it is that Facebook wanted to created a ring-fenced Internet for the young population in India, making free access to Internet costlier and cumbersome by making some Internet sites accessible without carrier costs. With millions of young people, this was supposed to be Facebook's chance of dominating the next century, by locking down the preferences of a great number of young people. Couched in marketing speak - Free Basics was really Free as long as it is Facebook - this was not just about India, but also about the integrity of the Internet. Offered in partnership with Reliance, the conglomarate which The Economist once called 'a national embarrassment', this was an attempt to be justly refuted. And, now, Indian regulators must be criticised by people like Mr Andreessen, conveniently perched on Facebook board, for having an independent opinion.

In Mr Andreessen's world, there is a simple way to profits: A combination of Debts and Poor People, who do not have many choices, can drive the spluttering engine. This rebuff, therefore, would surely hurt. But, this Freudian slip, invocation of Anti-Colonialism, gave out what it really was about - colonialism of the mind! In one way, though, it is Mr Andreessen and his friends who seem to be in thrall of economic doctrines which are both unreal and coming to the end of shelf life, and it is they who can do with a dose of fresh thinking, which Twitter has been helpfully reminding him about.

In the meantime, this may be a moment for countries such as Philippines, which has allowed the Internet to be fragmented and prioritised, to think fresh and roll back some of these policies. Indeed, national governments themselves do a lot to undermind Internet, which must also be challenged, but for the moment, let's savour the victory of choice over enclosure!

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