Facebook’s Free Basics:
Digital Colonialism Disguised as Development
Facebook’s Free Basics is a free internet service offered in more than 63 countries from Africa, Asia, and South America which has come under severe criticism as a form of digital colonialism. In India, Facebook’s initiative was banned by the government for fear that it will allow the company to become the main Internet gatekeeper and to give access only to those web contents that serve its economic interests and not those of the local poor people who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the initiative. Colonialism can be understood as a form of economic, political and social subjugation of countries that are less developed by businesses from highly developed countries looking to extract unfair profits through actions disguised as an act of paternal push towards civilization. Facebook’s Free Basics initiative is a form of digital colonialism because this market expansion strategy represents a monopolistic overtake of less developed countries’ internet industry wrapped up as a philanthropic offering of free internet.
Launched in 2014, Facebook’s Internet.org, later renamed Free Basics, intends to bring free internet to people from areas around the globe that are not yet connected to the internet. The main argument is that this is a platform that will close the digital divide and improve the lives of these people by allowing them to experience the benefits of internet and “tak[ing] away the fear of use” (Spillane, 2015). The initiative is supported by various app developers which offer their services through Facebook’s mobile app designed to work on older models of phones and to give access to a series of apps that provide basic access to certain Internet contents such as instant messaging, weather forecasts, health information and news to people who are currently offline.
Figure 1. Zuckerberg’s rhetoric on Free Basics in Africa (Olori, 2016)
Facebook’s motivation is to gain a stronger foothold in emerging markets such as India, which is the company’s largest market after US and to get millions of people from less developed countries dependent on Facebook’s services for Internet access. Facebook has already managed to reach more than 25 million people in these countries and the numbers keep growing (Bowles, 2016). The main source of concern is that the way in which the Free Basic’s terms of service are designed allows Facebook unlimited access to metadata regarding the traffic through the app, irrespective of whether the users are on Facebook or not. Thus, critics argue that Facebook is acting as an “information gatekeeper” (Global Voices, 2017, p. 7) and although, in theory, their Free Basic Initiative should generate benefits for both the users and Facebook, Facebook is taking the lion’s share of the benefits and that end-users are not in a situation which allows them to say that “some Internet is better than none” (Smiley, 2016), something which even Facebook’s board members (e.g. Marc Andreessen) have linked to colonial practices.
Figure 2. Tweet about Free Basics and colonialism (Knibbs, 2016)
This is because Facebook is gathering data on users’ online activity and is also protecting its various shareholders who also have other businesses with stakes in local industries (e.g. Monsanto in India) (Shiva, 2015). This type of protection of multinationals’ interests comes in the form of limiting access to information that would actually allow end-users to make informed decisions about their food, their agricultural businesses, health and even voting preferences. This is achieved by offering apps in two tiers, the first tier being populated by apps developed mostly by US businesses with an interest in emerging countries such as Microsoft, ESPN, ChangeCorp and a series of local and regional businesses with ties to the government and the partner mobile phone operators (Global Voices, 2017). Moreover, access to internet is not the biggest issue, digital literacy skills are and Facebook is not providing that, instead coercing users to create Facebook accounts in order to enjoy the full benefits of third-party apps (as in Colombia) and offering text-based services mainly in English and not in other popular languages such as Punjabi and Pastho in Pakistan which make it difficult for illiterate people to use Free Basics (Global Voices, 2017).
BBC News (2016, February 8). India blocks Zuckerberg’s free net app. Retrieved from: www.bbc.com/news/technology-35522899.
Bowles, N. (2016, April 13). Facebook’s ‘colonial’ Free Basics reaches 25 million people — despite hiccups. Retrieved from: www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/12/ facebook-free-basics-program-reach-f8-developer-conference
Global Voices (2017). Free Basics in real life: Six case studies on Facebook’s internet “on ramp” initiative from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Amsterdam: Stichting Global Voices.
Knibbs, K. (2016, February 10). Marc Andreessen did a magnificently bad tweet. Retrieved from: gizmodo.com/marc-andreessen-admits-facebooks-free-basics-is-colonia-1758240071.
Olori, I. (2016). Facebook provides free basic internet services for Nigerians. Retrieved from: www.naij.com/827463-big-news-facebook-airtel-launch-free-internet-services-nigerians.html#827463.
Shiva, V. (2015, December 29). ‘Free Basics’ will take away more than our right to the internet. Retrieved from: medium.com/@drvandanashiva/free-basics-will-take-away-more-than-our-right-to-the-internet-4d39422fe122.
Smiley, L. (2016, February 1). How India pierced Facebook’s free internet program. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/2016/02/how-india-pierced-facebooks-free-internet-program.
Spillane, C. (2015, June 24). Facebook to offer South African Cell C users free web access. Retrieved from: www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-24/facebook-to-offer-south-african-cell-c-users-free-web-access.