Free Basics: Colonization 2.0
In 2013, Facebook launched Internet.org, this is an initiative created by Facebook and six other telecommunication companies that includes a project titled Free Basics. 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.” (Free Basics, n.d.). Essentially, the project is an internet service app which provides those who cannot afford internet data to browse a very limited amount of the internet (All versions have access to: “…AccuWeather, Johnson & Johnson-owned BabyCenter, BBC News, ESPN and the search engine Bing. There are no other social networking sites apart from Facebook and no email provider.” (Solon, 2017)) for free and get a curated set of websites to have limited access to. So far, the project (differing from country to country) has been launched in Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and Philippines. As of 2015, the project was set to launch in South Africa, and has also attempted a launch in India. Note that the key word here is attempt. The project was set to launch in India, but had failed due to India’s telecom regulator blocking the internet service app application, stating that: “No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content” (India, 2016). Basically, this was a ruling in favour of net neutrality, a topic widely discussed as more and more internet monopolies are forming globally on the grounds of what people do and do not get access to online. One of the many arguments following the controversial Free Basics application is that this is not only following an approach that is not inclusive of allowing all to access the full potential of the web, but also of its colonialist undertones. Ashcroft et al. define colonialism as ”the implanting of settlements on distant territory”, this is not the same as imperialism, which also defined as”the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory” (Ashcroft et al., 2009, pg. 40). Put simply, colonialism is the outcome of imperialism. At first glance, this seems to be a very helpful application for those who do not have internet access and need to be able to be connected to information around a person’s respective country. However, that is not the case. The Free Basics application is not only highly flawed, but is also a new method of cultural and technological colonization.
The first major flaw in Free Basics, and the first dominant sign of its colonialist intentions is the fact that no matter which region you look at, the application that is meant to be relevant to the country the user is in is in fact dominated by western content and is primarily in English (Free Basics, 2017, pg. 3). Any content on the page that is local, is only available because they have met the Free Basics platform requirements, not the local needs (Solon, 2017). How does these two points connect to colonialism? First off, the type of content that is available to Free Basics users is curated by a Western figurehead, only showing content that is approved by them or comes from their lands. Secondly, the fact that the majority of the services that appear on the application are in English is also problematic, because this creates the need to have to understand English to use this app. This alone sends the message that if the user doesn’t know English, then they have very limited to no access to what is available for them. Specific services that could actually be of help are still unavailable to those who do not have the proper English proficiency, thus creating an exclusive atmosphere.
As a result of the Free Basics app, Facebook is able to further exploit its users for free digital labour. What is Facebook able to exploit exactly? They are able to profit off our social media and internet use by tracking our online habits, by tracking us they are able to take what we say and do and define them in a highly qualitative manner that thus improves their financial endeavours. To summarize, Facebook is able to financially gain from our online usage by selling advertising spots per click. This results in heavy tracking, and has thus been dubbed the ‘Like Economy’, because of the primary manner of monitoring through the like and share buttons (Gerlitz and Helmond, 2013). Even though social media is a platform for users to voice their thoughts and share content with others, Facebook is able to profit off of “desire to “share with a larger audience”, the “pride in their accomplishments” and the “desire for dialogue””(Fuchs, 2013, pg. 63). Obviously when we use social media, it is usually a way to spend out free time, so how can one be exploited when they’re actively seeking to relax? Sadly, exploited labour is still exploited labour, even when the user is unaware of it. “Exploitation if measured as the degree of unpaid labour from which companies benefit at the expense of the labour” (Fuchs, 2013, pg. 64).
Through launching Free Basics, it clear that Facebook does not focus on actually helping the people build an infrastructure, but rather giving them something that they do not know how to maintain. This is a big reason why, historically, colonialism has resulted in countries falling apart post-liberation. A major focus of issues to be sorted out in underdeveloped areas globally is the lack or the poor maintenance of infrastructure, this is further elaborated by Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Gennie Gebhart, who states that not only is the “cost of data…one of many problems that need solving to get the unconnected online”, but also “signal availability, device ownership, education, digital literacy and electricity” (Solon, 2017), which are more urgent matters and can even inhibit the proper setup of Free Basics. This is reflective upon history, as the same concept was implemented. Colonizers came in and set up institutions that were primarily run by the colonists themselves up until the country became an independent entity, after that, there was very little knowledge or help in how to maintain what was already set up, thus crumbling down. Facebook has also opened an office in South Africa, specifically in an affluent area of Johannesburg (Spillane, 2015). By doing so, they are able to implement their ideas within this group, that can thus be spread and help maintain this project. The project may be sustainable, but it is essentially in control by the headquarters of Facebook and is only properly benefiting, thus not giving locals the leverage to be able to learn and utilize the application in a manner that thoroughly helps underdeveloped nations fix parts infrastructure that desperately need to be worked on.
It is very clear the Free Basics is set up only to benefit Facebook. The application’s integration may not come off as colonialist, but with careful analysis, it is very clear that it is. It was even stated during the pre-launch of the South Africa Free Basic app that access to free open web was only limited, after that “we’ll take away the baby pictures and cat videos…If users want to see the full experience then getting a data plan from Cell C [a cellular provider in South Africa] obviously enables the full Facebook”(Spillane, 2015). Free Basics globally is very problematic due to the fact that it is highly westernized, highly exploitative, and a fantastic way to maintain dominance on a global scale. These three attributes are not unlike Facebook, but it has found a great way to increase these borders and further enhance them. Throughout all of the controversy, could it be that Facebook has also flipped around the way we process and consume media? After all, social media is a part of participatory culture, however, it seems that Free Basic’s limited access is now replicating mass media, in which there is “one send and many recipients.” (Fuchs, 2013, pg. 52).
Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (2009). Post-colonial studies: the key concepts. London: Routledge.
Free Basics (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2017, from https://developers.facebook.com/docs/internet-org
Free Basics in Real Life (Rep.). (2017, July 27). Retrieved October 16, 2017, from Global Voices website: https://advox.globalvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/FreeBasicsinRealLife_FINALJuly27.pdf
Fuchs, C. (2013). Social Media as Participatory Culture. In Social Media: A Critical Introduction(pp. 52–66). Sage.
Gerlitz, C., & Helmond, A. (2013). The like economy: Social buttons and the data-intensive web. New Media & Society, 15(8), 1348–1365. doi:10.1177/1461444812472322
India blocks Zuckerberg’s free net app. (2016, February 08). Retrieved October 16, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35522899
Solon, O. (2017, July 27). ‘It’s digital colonialism’: how Facebook’s free internet service has failed its users. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jul/27/facebook-free-basics-developing-markets
Spillane, C. (2015, June 29). Facebook Opening Africa Office to Target Next Billion Users. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-29/facebook-s-next-billion-likes-depend-on-an-ad-veteran-in-africa
Spillane, C. (2015, June 24). Facebook to Offer South African Cell C Users Free Web Access. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-24/facebook-to-offer-south-african-cell-c-users-free-web-access