MANU JOSEPH 2015年9月17日
New Delhi — The last time Prime Minister Narendra Modivisited the United States, he stood with Hugh “Wolverine” Jackman and declared, for some reason, “May the force be with you.” This month, when he meets the Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in Menlo Park, Calif., Indians hope their leader won’t yell, “Don’t be evil.”
But if he does end up shouting Google’s motto in Facebook’s headquarters, some Indians would be pleased. For that is what they wish to tell Facebook.
Mr. Modi wants every Indian to get online, and Mr. Zuckerberg has figured out a way to do this. But the Modi government has been under pressure from the minority of Indians who consume most of the nation’s bandwidth to pass legislation that would deny free Internet access to the poor.
In February, Facebook and its partners introduced Internet.org in India, a diminished but free Internet for the more than 100 million mobile subscribers of Reliance Communications. More than 75 percent of Indians do not use or have access to the Internet, but almost every Indian has a mobile phone. So, millions of Indians now have access, in seven languages, to dozens of websites and applications, including BBC News, Wikipedia and, of course, Facebook.
Internet.org would not have drawn much rage if not for something else that was going on. Weeks after the initiative emerged, an Indian telecom operator tried to introduce a service that would make it free or cheap or faster for people to gain access to some applications that have a commercial agreement with the operator.
There is a global movement against strategies that corrupt the open nature of the Internet, and Indians joined the lament. The movement ended up including Internet for the poor among the offending telecom strategies. This was a flawed, principled stand. And it fit well in the history of the Indian elite deploying ideology to the detriment of the poor — central planning instead of a market economy, a focus on higher education over primary education and rocket science over virology.
Mr. Zuckerberg has been at pains to tell Indians that his offer of free Internet to the poor does not violate any ethics. Facebook does not charge for any application that wishes to be on Internet.org, and it does not post ads on the Facebook pages of the users. Also, the company does not pay Reliance to provide the free service. Mr. Zuckerberg has said that any telecom operator would be allowed to carry Internet.org. A Facebook spokesman told me, “We are actively in discussions with other mobile phone operators in India.”
He said that “more than 40 percent of those coming online via” Internet.org are so intoxicated by the idea of connectivity that they soon pay the telecom operator for data and enjoy the full expanse of online life. So, the telecom operator has commercial rewards in offering an exceptional social service. It is an idea that can transform India.
The elite Indian condemnation of Internet for the poor is cloaked in righteous objections. For instance, that it is “restrictive,” thereby violating the fundamental spirit of the web. But Internet.org is limited because data is expensive, not because it promotes some websites over others. In fact, it is paid Internet that is restrictive because it denies the web to those who cannot pay.
Another objection is that the poor would think Facebook is the Internet as many in other nations do. But then in India “xerox” is a verb that means photocopying, and many think the Internet is an American company. If the whole world were surveyed, it would come across as generally ill informed. Many are ignorant because they never had the opportunities, like being connected, to be informed.
Also, there is a view that free Internet is just a ploy by Facebook to capture new markets. The history of modern India is proof that corporate self-interest is often more useful to society than altruism.
Mr. Modi, instead of banishing Internet.org, may consider uploading government websites on it. Facebook is discussing that possibility with his team.