Facebook’s Free Internet Initiative. A New Form of Colonization or Economic Democracy?

Free Basics makes the internet accessible to more people by providing them access to a range of free basic services like news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information. To date, Facebook initiative have been able to offer these services to a billion people across Asia, Africa and Latin America. By introducing people to the benefits of the internet through these services, Facebook brought more people online and help improve their lives. and thus, on August 20, 2013, Facebook launched a free internet service to many countries in Pacific Asia, the middle east, Africa and Latin America. “We believe that connectivity is a human right and that connectivity can’t just be a privilege for some of the rich and powerful, it needs to be something that everyone shares” (Zuckerberg, 2015). Africa found the Free Basics service very helpful mainly because it brought up useful tools and information. However, India’s government blocked this service while stating that it’s a form of “Digital colonialism” and that it violates the net neutrality principles, which means that this application offers a small set of services and oblige users to log in to the Facebook and provide their information for free. So, is Facebook’s Free Internet Initiative, a new form of colonization or is it an economic democracy? to define, colonization is a form of control over a certain community in this case. Facebook is colonizing Africa by collecting the user’s data and economically benefiting from it. “We want to take away the fear of use. Less than half of the population is connected.” (Spilane, 2015, p. 1)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed Monday to press on with his 3-year-old effort to bring the developing world online, even after Indian regulators banned one of the pillars of the campaign.

So, is the Internet “Free Basics” really a form of economic democracy or actually it’s a form of digital colonization? In this blog, I’ll be discussing the different, positive and negative effects, of the Facebook free internet attempt “Free Basics” in the cases of the two countries: Africa and India.

In the case of Africa, Facebook controls the whole society and thus, Facebook collects users’ data and tend to economically benefit from them and this is defined as “digital colonization”. According to the advocacy director of Global Voices Ellery Biddle, “Facebook is not introducing people to open internet where you can learn, create and build things.” “It’s building this little web that turns the user into a mostly passive consumer of mostly western corporate content. That’s digital colonialism.” (Solon, 2017). It is the right of everybody to access “Free Basics”, however, people in Africa and India didn’t have the access to them. They were only able to access specific pages including the Facebook page itself. “The content does not include some of the important websites Ghanaians want to look at,” said Kofi Yeboah, who researched the app in Ghana, noting that popular news websites such as MyJoyOnline and CityFM were missing (Solon, 2017).Besides, the only available language was English where people on Ghana and other countries can’t speak English. And in heavily multilingual countries including Pakistan and Philippines, the app is offered in only one local language” (Advox, 2017 ). In addition to that, “Free Basics” didn’t offer a total access to the sites. Besides, the same research made by Global voices organization states that Facebook doesn’t connect the Free basics application to the global internet, it only collects the user’s data. (Advox, 2017 ). According to the world data bank, Facebook has made 635 million users in almost half the countries of Africa but Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa’s goal is to reach the 1 billion users (DataBank, World Development Indicators, 2017). So, is this initiative was made to help non-developed countries or is it a form of colonialism?

Neo Colonialism: Other Side of the Colonial Rule

Another obstacle Free basic app is facing is the weak infrastructure in Africa, that allow a limited amount of mobile data and therefore a limited flow in the information (a few images, no ads, nor videos). In fact, “Our researchers in Colombia and Mexico reported that once installed, the app could not be used over a WiFi connection. It could be used only on the network of the participating operator. In contrast, our researchers in Pakistan had significant connection problems and reported that the app encouraged them to use it over a WiFi connection.” (Advox, 2017 ) But why would they even use the application if they had Wifi?

In India’s case, Facebook was accused of Net neutrality since it’s offering free access to certain websites, blocking therefore the information from other competitor’s site, charging people money for other sites and straightening the data connection for powerful companies. These accusations alongside with cultural imperialism allegations led a Facebook board member, Marc Andreessen to tweet remarks supporting British colonialism (now deleted tweet).

venture capitalist and member of Facebook’s board of directors Marc Andreessen tweeted that anti-colonialism had been “catastrophic” for India.

However, Zuckerberg denied the opinion expressed by Andreessen and replied by a Facebook post stating that a small amount of internet is better than having no internet at all.

Zuckerberg goes on to suggest that “to shape the future we need to understand the past.

In conclusion, the intention of Facebook is still lost. However, it’s definitely considered a form of digital colonialism since it’s trying to control the flow of information while holding up our personal data. The Free basics app faces a lot of economic barriers (Lack of technological devices), weak infrastructures and a lack of literacy & communication. Africa shouldn’t accept to make a part of its population oblige to the terms & conditions set by Facebook, neither should it allow them to only access a certain type of information for free nor make them manipulate news from their perspective (Increase in Fake news since they can’t access the full articles) and stick to a couple of languages while running the application. Facebook is only using these countries to collect information about and know what advertisements they should target in the future while pretending that they just want to help Africa and all the others developing & non- developed countries.

An insight into latest numbers of Facebook users within African continent (2011 and 2013)

References:

Zuckerberg, M. (2015). Free basics platform. Retrieved from Facebook for developers: https://developers.facebook.com/docs/internet-org

Solon, O. (2017, July 27). ‘It’s digital colonialism’: how Facebook’s free internet service has failed its users. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jul/27/facebook-free-basics-developing-markets

DataBank, World Development Indicators. (2017). Retrieved from The world bank: http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=2&series=SP.POP.TOTL&country=AGO,BEN,CPV,COD,GAB,GHA,GIN,GNB,KEN,LBR,MDG,MWI,MRT,MOZ,NER,NGA,RWA,SEN,SYC,ZAF,TZA,ZMB#

Advox. (2017 , July 27). Can Facebook Connect the Next Billion? . Retrieved from Global voices Advox : https://advox.globalvoices.org/2017/07/27/can-facebook-connect-the-next-billion/

Spilane, C. (2015). Facebook Opening Africa Office to Target. BloomBerg Business, 1–6. Retrived from: https://elearn.lau.edu.lb/bbcswebdav/pid-198974-dt-content-rid-615199_1/courses/JSC_224_11_201810/Facebook%20Opening%20Africa%20Office%20to%20Target%20Next%20Billion%20Users.pdf