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Author: Nash David

Newsroom diaries 2016: Freedom 251, the story that made us question technology

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of newsroom diaries by various members of the Firstpost team. These diaries will provide you with the journalist’s recollections of a particular bit of news coverage in 2016 in which she/he was deeply involved.

I’ve been covering technology for some years now. But on the evening of 16 February this year, news came in of a sub-Rs 500 smartphone to be launched in India. Personally, I considered it to be a con job. It seemed as tricky as a chain-marketing sham to make money from innocent customers. I was rather excited about the upcoming Mobile World Congress, which typically sets the pace for the kind of devices we are to expect through the rest of the year. When someone suggested that this could be a story worth following, I brushed it aside.

Freedom 251. IBNLiveFreedom 251. IBNLive

Freedom 251. IBNLive

The next morning I was proven wrong. And how. On the morning of 17 February, newspapers in the northern parts of India ran full front page ads of the Freedom 251, by Ringing Bells. Colleagues who would otherwise not care as much about what we covered in technology were following up by the minute. I was getting phone calls and messages about this latest sensation. That’s exactly what Freedom 251 was – a sensation.

I had colleagues in office who were interested in buying a dozen handsets. A dozen? I thought to myself. But that’s exactly the kind of hysteria I was witnessing. While the initial joy of discovering a product as cheap as the Freedom 251 was behind us, we knew we had to go deeper. We’d have to break the myth it was. I ridiculed the product. Fundamentally, I was convicted of my idea that India needs devices, but what the Freedom 251 offers somehow doesn’t make it for me. I was criticised on social media for my stand – going against the wave of having an Indian product. I was accused of being critical and pessimistic when the need was to support Indian products. I guess that’s typical of social media conversations these days. Especially in India.

We analysed the product, the specification sheet that the company had put out. Our finding was that it was simply not possible to manufacture a device at that price point. People didn’t want to accept that this simply wasn’t possible. It’s like saying everyone has the possibility of winning a lottery. Mass hysteria begins. Then no one wants to know that the lottery is a hoax. During the days of the initial surge in interest, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook all seemed pale in comparison.

We worked towards getting access to the device. Media in Delhi were invited to a launch event. As I always think, Delhi is important. So yes, media in Delhi tried the device out. And did mention on social media how the device gives mixed reactions. There were a few who said ‘what more do you expect in Rs 251?’ while others said, ‘feels like a scam.’ And sitting in Mumbai, I was getting mixed reactions from my friends in Delhi who had tried the device. But even they were given access to a ‘prototype’ with the logo of another manufacturer. Fine so far. But even that manufacturer distanced themselves from the company – Ringing Bells. I’m glad today there’s no mention of Freedom 251 and that India has finally moved beyond. Moreover, our initial stand of doubting the feasibility stands vindicated.

But what I have with me now are a couple of thousands of emails. All sent with personal details. I’ve been on a deletion spree, but every time I embark on that task, something more important comes along, and I procrastinate the deletion. It’s funny how someone could send me emails with an order of two dozen Freedom 251 handset. I’m not remotely connected to them. I’m glad though that no one sent me money, else they’d be demanding refunds! I’m probably going to spend a few hours around New Years cleaning up my inbox.

First Published On : Dec 31, 2016 09:40 IST

Net Neutrality and Trai: A principle-driven fight was won today but battle for connectivity continues

India stands for Net Neutrality. Shortly after the Trai press conference, an email hit my mailbox saying, “we won.” It took me a couple of moments scrolling through that email from Change.org to fathom that this had attained the status of a movement. Probably a millennial version of freedom without being violent.

Trai has taught us a valuable lesson today – principle holds merit. That the million voices of average citizens online can bring about change. That you and I can sit back and trust the powers that be, to bring about the much-needed correction in the telecom and internet industry. But most importantly, despite having many millions of dollars in marketing budgets and lobbying at their disposal, corporates can’t really subvert true principles of freedom in India!

And I moved from a sense of gloom to pride. The world’s largest democracy has reason to cheer. The nation with the most number of brains in technology is also driven by principle. We are a democracy, and we have given both sides to voice their side of the story.

net-neutralitynet-neutrality

All of this didn’t happen overnight. And all of this certainly can’t happen due to one particular segment of the demographic. Several people came together: from the folks at SaveTheInternet who volunteered their time to create an emailing system making it easy for novices to share their sentiment on the idea of free internet, to the selfless individuals who volunteered their time to educate the masses about how net neutrality is not just for the elite, but for a more mature internet, and that is how it is designed to be; and those who persisted and moved others to partake in the debate and voice their opinion. Oh, and you’d remember Facebook prompting you to speak up for digital equality in India.

A principle-driven fight soon had two camps. Before we realised, there were three sides to the story. One vehemently demanding that services such as Free Basics be banned. That side stands vindicated by Trai. On the other side, there are two additional opinions, Free Basics needs to be moderated, or be allowed. Surprisingly, some are vocal about that stand as well. And it pretty much leaves those who haven’t been following the debate to choose a side. To be fair, it could be a daunting task.

Through all of this, Trai has taken a stand that is an example to the world. I was immediately reminded of the global financial meltdown of 2008. Guilty as charged, I always felt our banking system was rooted in red-tapism and could probably do better. Till the fall of Lehman, and the resultant domino effect made me believe otherwise. Today, I’m deeply thankful to the protective Indian banking system.

The decision by Trai in the interest of the Indian internet consumer (and not digital corporates) has reaffirmed my faith in the telecom regulatory authorities in India as well.

The key takeaways from the Trai report are:

Do not differentiate between data/services: Essentially, an operator can no longer offer tariffs based on whether you use Facebook, YouTube or WhatsApp. So say goodbye to all those supposedly enticing plans that were being advertised till today. In about six months, they’d have to cease.
Operators need to sit back and realign: Not falling in line with Trai’s directive could result in a penalty of Rs 50,000 per day up to a maximum of Rs 50 lakh. As a consumer, I feel thankful for having a regulator like Trai!

The internet in India would stay neutral: Trai has attested to the importance of internet neutrality on several occasions during the course of the debate. That essentially means a big no to differential pricing, or prioritisation of one data packet over the other purely on the basis of content.

While one packet cannot be prioritised over the other, a neutral network could still provide free content on say its own network. For instance, an operator could choose to offer a free section on its music portal if it wishes to. However, under no circumstances could it prioritise its own music service over another services such as Spotify, Hungama or Saavn to name a few.

Now that we (as Internet consumers in India) have won the first step in this larger debate, the primary question still remains unanswered. What happens to internet connectivity in India? Well, that has been addressed by Trai in the past as well. And that narrative has been on the lines that a lot more is left to be done. This will need the participation of entities including cellular operators, corporates including Facebook (who have the might and spread as influencers of opinion and technology), and average citizens like you and me to collectively participate whenever the need arises in drafting a larger, more detailed view on the future of internet in India.

To sum it up, I’d say, Facebook is welcome to grant access to the unconnected millions, but maintaining the sanctity of the internet is far more vital than that last mile of connectivity. We will hold the powers that be accountable for that lapse in connectivity.

Press Release No 13

For more articles on technology, visit tech2

Thank you, Mr Modi: India needs free access to the internet more than it needs Free Basics

On Thursday morning we read reports of displeasure being expressed by the PMO on the way Facebook has responded to TRAI’s consultation paper on differential pricing. According to sources, quoted in an Economic Times report, the PMO has set up a ‘high-powered committee’ which will be headed by the Union Minister for Communications and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad and several other ministers.

In many ways, this is a welcome sign. And it wouldn’t be wrong to say, long due. A few months ago, during a townhall at the Facebook HQ in the Silicon Valley, PM Narendra Modi got emotional and cried while talking about his mother. That indeed, is a very emotional moment to say the least. And while there may be no direct apparent connection, there is a clear link. Between the PM’s initiative to get India’s perception changing in the global arena, and his focus on start-ups. And before we could put it away in the past, Zuckerberg showed up in Delhi.

Image courtesy: FacebookImage courtesy: Facebook

Image courtesy: Facebook

Every Indian mother has a right to see her sons and daughters rise high. Create impactful businesses and surge ahead to scale the ambitions of a young India. We are a nation that belongs to the youth. Statisticians depict India’s age demographics as a sloped pyramid – essentially we have many babies to fuel the economy’s growth for years to come. In contrast, the United States has a flabby pyramid, which will soon form an hourglass. In simple terms, evolved markets such as the United States would have a significant percentage of citizens in their 40s and 50s with fewer youth.

With a natural advantage as an active population, the key catalyst to our economic growth for the generations ahead is to equip the youth of the nation with as much opportunities and freedom as possible. And if they are to create businesses that scale up to be multi-billion dollar companies, then they would undoubtedly need a level playing field. The same level playing field that garage start-ups of the Silicon Valley enjoyed. Apple, Google, Yahoo, YouTube – the list could go on and on. And we haven’t gotten to the investment circle just yet. The basic access to the internet, which has been expressed vocally, and through numerous campaigns globally, is the need of the hour.

At the risk of using a cliché, the internet isn’t technology anymore. It’s an ecosystem, a platform for ambitious minds to thrive and exploit a billion opportunities. Times are changing and the internet isn’t just for learning, leisure or entertainment. Internet is undeniably the source for livelihood for millions. It may come across as luxury for leisure, or a far-fetched need much lower in priority.

But if the internet is used the way it is supposed to, it could bring in roti, kapda, and makaan in the lives of a billion citizens in India. Interestingly, that’s exactly what every government of the land aspires to do. Entrepreneurs such as Vijay Shekhar Sharma have stood up for the right of citizens like them who have been able to scale up and become billion dollar businesses. In addition, founders of start-ups including Zomato and Cleartrip also wrote to the PM urging him to ‘save the internet’. It wouldn’t be fair to restrict the proponents of a free and fair internet to a select few names.

It’s been encouraging to see TRAI stand up to Facebook while dealing with it on the issue of Free Basics. And with the PM’s office expressing its dissatisfaction, it’s a clear indication that the voice of citizens are being heard loud and clear.

For more stories on technology, visit Tech2 (tech.firstpost.com)

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