Facebook’s Free Basics: what’s so wrong with giving the world free internet?

The dangers of allowing “internet” to mean “Facebook”. 

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Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Give him access to a handful of websites, and he’ll pull himself out of poverty.

That’s the reasoning of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO and lately self-ordained saviour of the developing world. In 2013, Facebook launched Internet.org, an initiative which would offer free internet services in 37 countries – with a catch.

Internet.org, provided by Facebook but paid for by telecoms operators, would let customers connect to certain sites for free, including Wikipedia, AccuWeather, and, of course, Facebook itself. The initiative aimed to overcome the pricey smartphone data packages used by many in developing countries, and allow users free access to core services like the weather, and, er, Facebook.

Three years and one rebrand on, the platform now called “Free Basics” has attracted over 15m users and criticism from all sides – most recently in India.  

Not so neutral

Most criticisms of Zuckerberg’s pet project focus on the issue of “net neutrality”. This is simpler than it sounds: it basically means that internet providers shouldn’t block sites without good reason, or favour some over others. The networks should be open conduits, not editorialising forces.

Free Basics only offers certain sites for free, which, many argue, contravenes the net neutrality ideal. The debate really rests on how we see free content: we all agree that Google shouldn’t charge us more to access certain sites than others, but should Facebook offer certain sites, including its own, for free when other sites are costly to access?

Zuckerberg says he supports net neutrality, and claims that Free Basics falls under its remit, saying in a video posted in May last year that his vision “supports” these principles. Since its original launch, Free Basics has expanded the number of sites on its roster, and now has a process by which new sites can apply for inclusion. 

Later in the same video, though, Zuckerberg makes a slightly different point:

"Our society acknowledges that preventing discrimination alone isn't enoguh. we also need to more to lift up the disadvantaged in our communities. "

This is important because it holds an implied challenge to the relevancy of net neutrality: that until everyone is connected, it’s a rather idealistic concept.

A spokesperson for the European Save the Internet campaign told me that the group supports the net neutrality-based criticisms of Free Basics, and added:

"The value of the internet is intrinsically linked to net neutrality - the ability to for everyone to connect to anybody, without 'gatekeepers' and without permission."

Trouble in India 

A regulator in India temporarily suspended access to Free Basics in December while it conducted a review of internet pricing rules in the country. In response, Facebook has taken out full-page advertisements in newspapers and pushed users to submit pro-Facebook responses to the regulator's consultation. 

On 6 January, a collection of groups signed an open letter calling for Zuckerberg to take concerns around net neutrality in India and elsewhere seriously. Interestingly, it compared internet connectivity to other services usually provided by the state: 

"If you think access to the internet is a right like access to health care and clean drinking water, then Facebook should support affordable access to the entire internet for everyone, not access only to those services that Facebook or its partners deem acceptable."

In response to the open letter, a Facebook spokesperson cited a "representatve" poll which said 86 per cent of Indians support Free Basics, and stated: 

“We do not believe it makes sense to halt a program that accelerates economic development for those most in need… while we share the signers' commitment to net neutrality, we do not believe this important principle was ever intended to deprive poor people of the opportunity to experience the benefits of basic Internet services”

Herein lies the problem: we can agree that free internet in developing countries is a good thing, but until states take responsibility for providing connectivity for all, it will remain the domains of companies like Google and Facebook.

Getting in early 

One sinister outcome from this situation could be that Free Basics may represent the first interaction some have with online services, and that for these users, “internet” could simply mean “Facebook”. Susan Berkman, a co-director at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, elaborated on this danger to MIT Technology review in 2014:

“For poorer people, Internet access will equal Facebook. That’s not the Internet—that’s being fodder for someone else’s ad-targeting business, That’s entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination—a crucial limitation on human life.”  

This may be an unwanted side effect of the project, or it could be a desired and sought-after one. Free Basics has repeatedly been labelled a “land grab”: an attempt to claim the next generation of internet adopters as its own. 

The real question is what role Free Basics is actually playing in the global race towards connectivity. Facebook's own stats suggest that around half of those who use it end up paying for other web access within the first year (though it's not clear whether some of these users were already paying for mobile internet). But even within this model, Facebook and other sites big enough to fit themselves into the Free Basics platform will prevail over sites which users will effectively have to pay for. Until public bodies start seeing the internet as part of their remit, it's not clear how these problems will be overcome. 

So in summary: the situation isn't ideal, and it will conveniently guarantee that Facebook is front-of-mind for a whole new generation of internet users. But at the moment, it’s not clear what the alternative is.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.