Mark Zuckerberg; Robin Hood or the Next Media Mogule ?
In 2014, Facebook launched Internet.org, an initiative intended to help narrow the global digital divide by giving people free access to web-based applications on their mobile phones. The main product of the initiative is a mobile app that gives users an access to a small suite of data light websites and services: literally a set of apps within the app (Global Voices, 2017). But don’t let the name fool you! Internet.org doesn’t give full access to the Internet, however, it gives free access to a limited number of websites including, of course, Facebook and Facebook Messenger (Smiley, 2016). At the time, the title “Internet.org” mislead the public because it neither offered the whole access to the internet nor was it a charity. The owners then changed the name, not to “Facebook&somewebsites.com” but rather to Free Basics. Critics claim the service is a form of digital colonialism because it allows only partial access to the internet while opening the door for a private, unregulated and pay-to-play internet controlled by Facebook — a single, powerful, US technology company in Palo Alto. Others have criticized the service for creating an informational underclass by offering privileges to some while neglecting the needs of others. Basically “zero-rating,” the practice of offering some data services for free, unfairly advantages the provider of the free service — in this case, Facebook. When people’s introduction to internet is through Facebook, there is the risk of creating an informational underclass of people who, for reasons of economic inequality, are dependent primarily on an American corporation for access to information. With Facebook being the largest social media platform having over 1.5 billion users today, the company sought to widen its scope and target the areas with greatest potential for growth. Mark Zuckerberg, owner of Facebook and Free Basics, mentions that one of the main goals was bringing the internet to two-thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it. Free Basics targets today 30 countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia with now an additional 15 million users active online.
At present, content available on Facebook’s Free Basics platform includes Wikipedia, AccuWeather, Bing, Supersport, and BBC news, among other region-specific health and education services, designed to work on even the most basic phones. The owners claim that this program serves the unfortunate to balance the digital divide between the poor and the rich. “Connectivity can’t just be a privilege for some of the rich and powerful. It needs to be something that everyone shares and an opportunity for everyone,” claims Mark Zuckerberg, Founder Chairman and CEO of Facebook.
Through the following critic we will find out how true these promises are and whether Free Basics is indeed working for the benefit of the underprivileged or for its own profit under the umbrella of the mentioned excuseses. First, Free Basics doesn’t provide a finite access to the internet, they choose for the people what they are going to see, read and consume. For example, they chose Bing over Google and Facebook over Instagram and Twitter to include in their list, without asking their target audience if they prefer this over that. They disregarded net neutrality, in other words, Free Basics acts as a “wall garden”. Second, they claimed that Free Basics will balance the digital divide between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t, however this program helped people who are already online save money on data each month, which increased the digital divide because those who were online are now online more than ever with the help of this program. Moreover, the social media company has described its initiative as an approach that provides connectivity between societies and overcomes the issues of accessibility, affordability and awareness. Facebook believes that its initiative to connect the otherwise disconnected is empowering those most vulnerable. However, it is important to fully understand the company’s perspective of connectivity. The social media giant paints those with no Internet access as absolutely distant and alone. However every individual that Facebook is reaching through its initiative owns a mobile phone. The traditional perception of connectivity does not even require an Internet connection. The fact that these individuals own a mobile phone indicates that they are connected with the “outside world”. To label such people as vulnerable or underprivileged is an attempt for Facebook to shift social perception of what indicates a person as connected to insure the usage of their platform. Another criticism targets Free Basics’ claim of the internet being ‘a human right’, or as Zuckerberg said “our moral responsibility”. Is internet access, in this case Facebook access, along with some other websites, a human right? Internet access is equivalent to the freedom of speech, expression, and thought; however, Free Basics is not the same as the Internet. Being limited in your access to information with just a few portals to seek from is actually a violation of the claimed human right. If Zuckerberg really cared about the unprivileged, internet connection is the least of their concern, most of the countries targeted have suffered from a natural disaster, a disease or even poverty but investing in human resources isn’t a good enough ad to market Facebook. Facebook’s main purpose is to broaden the reach of its ads, which generates 90% of its revenue. And this is where “Missed call Ads” come in handy. Advertisers place links in Facebook’s newsfeed, when those are clicked the advertiser rings the user with a promotion and foots the bill for the call. Moreover, In South Africa for example, the social media company will offer the customers of Cell C its free application along with free Internet data connection. The free data access to the full version of Facebook’s application is going to be limited for two months before down grading access to more basic version of the service, after the promotion they will take away all the pictures and videos. If users wanted to see the full experience then getting a data plan from Cell C obviously enables the full Facebook. After losing the pictures and the videos those who are less literate will lose their only way to participate on Facebook, moreover, Facebook is giving Africans a little taste of the Internet to show them what they are missing out on and eventually getting them hocked. One of the biggest hurdles for potential internet users across the world is that of literacy and competency in dominant languages on the internet. Of the thousands of languages spoken and written across the world, relatively few have robust representation online. Free Basics does not stand out in this milieu. The versions tested offered interfaces in English and one other language for each country. They did not reflect the linguistic diversity of countries such as Pakistan and the Philippines, where there are multiple dominant languages spoken and read by millions of people (Global Voices, 2017).
This program was accepted in some countries but banned in others, such as India. In India Free Basics was criticized by advocates for net neutrality as a way of giving an unfair advantage to certain websites. At stake in all this is access to critical stores of information and human knowledge for billions of people. Here’s how the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India summed up its decision:
Besides India, Egypt also banned Free Basics. There were two sides of the story on why Free Basics was banned. Two sources with direct knowledge of discussions between Facebook and the Egyptian government said Free Basics was blocked because the company would not allow the government to circumvent the service’s security to conduct surveillance. However, according to Mohamed Hanafi, a spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Communication, the service was offered free of charge to the consumer, and the national telecommunication regulator saw the service as harmful to companies and their competitors. (Abutaleb & Menn, 2015). The owner of Free Basics, also owns Facebook, and this ownership pattern is that of vertical integration. This allows the owner to self-promote Facebook on the Free Basics app, which is exactly what he is trying to do, which consequently kills the competition between all social media platforms, since no matter what other platforms do they are not going to get the marketing benefits that Facebook is granted from this initiative. Moreover, cooperating with one Telecommunication company in each developing country, Zuckerberg also crushed the competition in the telecommunication industry, which brings us back to the first case scenario in the Egypt discussion. Taking the second case scenario into consideration, Free Basics didn’t allow the Egyptian government to spy on the users, however Facebook collects unique streams of user metadata, including information about which third-party sites Free Basics users’ access, when, and for how long. That is a serious breach, and a rich source of information for Facebook, that it can later use for monetization and ad placement. So are Free Basics implying that the government can’t spy on its people for security purposes but they can spy on all their users for profit making? This case further supports the idea digital colonization.
As further support to the idea of colonization, we remember Facebook’s board member and Silicon Valley luminary Marc Andreessen’s tweet, “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” He implied that Facebook’s Free Basics, like colonialism, was beneficial to India and suggested that Indians are destined for economic disaster by banning the initiative. Thus, Andreessen by himself confessed that Free Basics is in fact a form of colonization.
Abutaleb, Y., & Menn, J. (2015). Exclusive: Egypt blocked Facebook Internet service over surveillance — sources. Rueters.
Global Voices. (2017). Free Basics in Real Life. Amsterdam.
Smiley, L. (2016, February 1). Medium Corporation. Retrieved from Medium Web site: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/290622982184593855/?autologin=true