Free Basics – is it the right way forward?
Free Basics. What is it? It’s a Facebook led initiative to provide access to a limited part of the Internet for some of the worst connected and poorest people on the planet. Whilst it sounds like a great idea on paper, it’s been met with staunch opposition in large parts of the world. Why? Because it violates the key concept of Net Neutrality.
There’s been a large backlash towards Facebook’s Internet.org (now called Free Basics), one that Mark Zuckerburg was probably not expecting.
People love it when things are free, though, as one of my favourite quotes goes “If something is free, you are the product.”
Mark Zuckerburg has perhaps fatally miscalculated general attitudes towards Net Neutrality in India. The rollout has not been as easy as he had expected, and though general proliferation of the internet in India is pretty low (lower than it perhaps should be), education and understanding is higher than he expected. Indians are not stupid, and his latest angry response to critics seems to be the kind of thing a five year old would say when told that no, he can’t have a 17th bowl of ice cream.
Free basics is not something that Zuckerburg has launched out of the goodness of his heart. Far from it. It’s a money making opportunity. That’s not exactly a bad thing, as capitalism is generally considered to be good, but hiding corporate making interests under the guise of a charitable act is about as dumb and offensive as corporate tactics get.
But getting people in India (and in many other countries where Free Basics will operate) online is important for development, education and many other reasons. Some statistics say as much as a half of all Indians do not have “regular” access to the Internet. This figure is worse in large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Again, what “regular” means in this case is opaque.
The issue people have raised with Free Basics is that it’s anti competitive. If Facebook provides your internet connection, then Facebook can choose what sites you can view. It may even choose what pages on those sites you can view.
Well, if it’s free, why is it so bad? Entire swathes of the Internet will be inaccessible. The platform and idea that in theory gives us the same worldwide exposure and accessibility as CNET and the BBC is being eroded. Twitter, an arguably superior social network, and Google, the world’s leading search engine, will both be inaccessible simply because they are not willingly to play ball. Can you imagine a world without Google? You might have to use…Bing…
What Facebook has done is build an essential road, and let only cars that Facebook likes drive along it. For some countries that already struggle with censorship and impartiality in the media, this problem is only going to get worse.
For critics, there is hope in the fact that there have been several regulatory challenges in two countries, India and Egypt. These seem to be more focused, however, on the fact that Facebook choose to partner with a single local ISP or mobile carrier when creating Free Basics, and is such anti competitive. It is not due to concerns about an attack on net neutrality.
Some have suggested that Facebook (if it’s intentions are so noble), should provide the entire internet at a subsidised price to those who are currently not connected. Facebook, and Mark Zuckerburg’s bank account, will benefit from getting more people onto the general Internet.
Right now however, a solution is not clearly available. Whether Free Basics will weather these legal challenges remains to be seen.