Facebook’s Free Internet Initiative: Not so Free

Facebook’s Free Internet Initiative was launched in 2014 and aims at creating digital equality. It works in collaboration with mobile operators to provide users with a limited amount of mobile data, free of charge, that they can use to connect to the web. It targets countries that have poor infrastructure and are considered to be developing or under-developed countries. Those countries are found in Africa, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, and Latin America. Facebook built this initiative on three promises: The first is reaching people who have never used the internet before. The second is increasing awareness on the benefits of the web and thus, increasing the value of the internet. And the last is that this initiative will motivate people to pay for unlimited internet access (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p.26). Although some considered the initiative as a way to provide users with an experience of the web, critiques viewed it as an exploitation of the infrastructures of countries it targets. They considered it a violation to net neutrality and a limitation in terms of the content users are being exposed too (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p.2). Some even went farther with their description of the initiative, such as India, and considered or described the initiative as a digital form of colonization. India did not accept to adopt this initiative because they considered it harmful on two levels: on the level of net neutrality and the level of people using it. The fact that Facebook decides what information people get to see (what websites they have access too) and that it targets the most marginalized groups (Shiva, 2015) makes it feel like a new form of colonization. This meant that Facebook lost the land of the “second largest home of potential web users” (Calia, 2016, p.6).

Free Basics profile on twitter

Before going into the details of Facebook’s promises and the reality of it all, I must give a description of what is colonization so that later on, it’ll be clear how this initiative is similar to, but differs at the same time from colonization. Colonization is defined as “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically” (Said, 1993:8). In other words, it’s enforcing power on a group of people that live in a specific territory in aim of exploiting their resources. Keeping this in mind, the following essay will describe the key differences and similarities between colonization and the Free Basics through studying what is hidden behind the initiative’s promises.

One of the problems that the initiative failed to address was its inability to meet the linguistic needs of users. Although it runs in language diverse countries, websites available in the initiative were mostly provided in English and one other national language. For example, the Pakistan version of the initiative provided sites in both English and Urdu. However, the font used for Urdu made it almost impossible for users to comprehend and use. In Philippines, where almost 170 languages are present and of which 12 are major, the version was presented in only two languages (English and Taglish). Also in Colombia and Mexico, sites were offered in English and Spanish although there are many people who live in these countries but speak indigenous languages. Furthermore, because of the limited data, the websites are more text oriented and lack pictures and videos. This creates a problem in the utility of the application for the illiterate and the visually impaired users. “The combined lack of diversity language offerings and lack of services for illiterate and semi-literate populations are likely counterproductive to Facebook’s intended goal of reaching populations that are not yet using the internet” (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p.29).

how people expressed their disapproval of Free Basics on social media.

Another problem in the application is its limited content. Although Facebook claims to allow any site or service to submit an application for inclusion in the initiative, it sets high technical standards that are at many times hard to achieve for small or independent platforms. This result in the inclusion of sites that are irrelevant for people of a specific region. As an example, Mexico’s free basics version had a Nigerian entertainment news site (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p. 30). In addition, the initiative provides people with only a set of fixed services divided into two tiers. Tier one is found on the main screen and includes at the top of the list Facebook and is denoted as provider of the application. Following Facebook is a set of 3rd party services. These applications vary from region to region but are mostly US or internationally based rather than regionally or locally based. For example the Mexican version via telecom offered only one local site (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p. 16). To access tier two, a user must click on the three dots found on the upper right-hand corner of the main screen. Once a user does that, he or she are exposed to over 150 sites that are not found in tier one. The division of sites into two tiers and the placement of applications in alphabetical order results in creating a hard time for first time web users, it limits there view of what content the initiative offers even more, and makes Facebook the gatekeeper whereby they get to decide what content users are receiving (through dividing applications into tier one and two and being tier one more visible than tier two). “Free basics appears designed to offer users a small slice of what is available on the global internet” (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p.30). Finally, of all social media platforms available, the application does not include any but Facebook. This means that Facebook is the most metadata collector placing it on top of the competition among its competitors (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p.31).

Furthermore, critiques have argued that this initiative violates net neutrality on various levels. One, the division of applications into two tiers, as I previously said, results in making Facebook the gatekeeper. Two, the high technical standards that Facebook demands for a platform to join the initiative results in creating an imbalance between local and international platforms (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p.31). And three, the lack of presence of social media platforms beyond Facebook “limits users’ ability to connect to a broader global public on local or global issues of public interest” (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p.31).

Finally, the initiative has a problem of privacy and exploitation of users’ data. Every time a person signs up to be part of the initiative, he or she must agree to the terms and conditions of Facebook and not the Free Basics. This means that without having to have a Facebook account, Facebook is being allowed to gather data about users’ online behavior through either the use of cookies or traffic collected from its centralized proxy server (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p. 24). This also means that by acting as the only provider of all these sites, Facebook went far beyond being a social media platform and more close to being a telecommunication operator (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p.25). Thus, Facebook is being able to “gather data about the habits and interests of users in countries where they aspire to have a strong presence” (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p.32).

Based on the above, Facebook’s free internet initiative is not considered to be as free. It is not colonialism in its definite meaning whereby power is enforced over a specific territory to exploit its resources but a similar form of it. It is not physical, doesn’t exploit natural resources, nor is it regulated because it has no boundaries, but creates a similar form of dependency. It plays the role of the master of the web in countries that lack internet access and thus, exploit its weak infrastructures to have control. It allows the freedom of deciding whether a person wants to join or not but creates rules for access and limits what users are exposed too- “walled garden”. Furthermore, users are only able to access the free web if they are willing to pay with their data in return through the “infrastructure of company providing the service” (Free Basics in Real Life, 2017, p.32). So yes, Facebook Free Basics Initiative shares characteristics with colonization but is on a totally different level. It masks the negatives of the project (characteristics of colonization) through its ‘curtain’ of positive promises.

References:

Calia, philippe. (2016). How India Pierced Facebook’s Free Internet Program. Retrieved from https://medium.com/backchannel/how%C2%ADindia%C2%ADpierced%C2%ADfacebook%C2%ADs%C2%ADfree%C2%ADinternet%C2%ADprogram%C2%AD6ae3f9ffd1b4#.66h5946ip

“Colonialism”. (n.d.).

Shiva, Vandana. (2015). Free Basics Will Take Away More Than Our Right to the Internet. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@drvandanashiva/free-basics-will-take-away-more-than-our-right-to-the-internet-4d39422fe122

Free Basics in Real Life. (2017). Netherlands, Amsterdam: Global Voices, Advox. Retrieved from https://gobalvoices.org

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