Facebook’s Free Basics: A Scheme for Digital Colonization? Or Digital Justice?
Facebook is one of the most used social platform that exists today. With over 2 billion users (Zephoria, 2017), Facebook has reached millions of people across the world. However, Facebook is still not fully accessible to many developing countries due to technological and economical challenges that such countries face. That’s what pushed Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, to launch Facebook’s more-affordable version, explaining how connectivity is a “human right” (Wikipedia, para. 2). The alternative platform was launched on August 20, 2013 and was initially known as Internet.org; it later got renamed to Free Basics in Fall of the year 2015 (Wikipedia). Its main goal was to provide easier, more affordable internet access to people living in countries which are less developed, like Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, and India. The initiative has succeeded in most countries, especially in Africa, however, India refused Free Basics because many saw it “as a violation of the principle of net neutrality” (Backchannel, 2016, p. 6). This controversy over Facebook’s free plan has led many to think about it as an obscure form of digital colonialism. To a certain extent, we can agree with that since Free Basics controls what content its users can see, limiting their perception of the internet and exploiting them to gain massive data traffic for a profit.
On Facebook’s official internet.org website, they explain how their goal is to connect the entire world and “not just some of us”. Facebook explains how mobile data is pricey and how many people in less-developed countries prefer not to spend big money on something they’re not familiar with, a.k.a. the internet. That’s why Facebook has decided to partner with mobile operators to give free access to basic websites in order to push consumers to actually pay for a wider-range internet in the long-term. Facebook’s free initiative gives “free” internet access to users of certain cellphone data providers. In other words, people can use a limited version of the internet and get connected without having to pay for mobile data usage. So, to use this limited version of the internet, people would have to be signed under Facebook-approved mobile carriers. For instance, in Africa, Free Basics offers Cell C users access to thirty websites which offer health-care and job opportunity information (Spillane, 2015).
Facebook’s intention in connecting the less-developed parts of the world to the internet seems promising, since it’s important for everyone to have digital equality. However, the method that they chose to do so may have botched their chances in improving connectivity. Although the company has reached more than 25 million users, many people, especially in India, have claimed it to be a form of digital colonialism since it only gives access to pre-approved websites (Bowles, 2016).
Facebook defended their initiative by strategically placing advertisements that promote Facebook’s ability to connect people on billboards, bus stops, shopping streets, and even newspapers in Mumbai, India (Backchannel, 2016). However, regardless of Facebook attempts to convince people in India about Free Basic’s benefits, net-neutrality supporters refused to accept using it. According to BBC, net neutrality supporters quarreled about how service providers shouldn’t endorse websites and services and discriminate against others (2016). Free Basics limits internet connectivity by handpicking websites, forcing its users to only use those provided for free; and if users wanted to explore other websites, they would be required to pay for data usage. Such control “misleads” consumers into thinking that such limited websites are the internet’s “essential tools” (Solon, 2017), which consequently decreases their interest in the internet. Others talked about how Facebook’s control over what websites and content is provided in Free Basics violates internet democracy, arguing how consumers should have the right to choose what media to intake similarly to their right to choose what food to eat (Shiva, 2015).
Different countries on different continents had different experiences with Facebook’s Free Basics. According to Free Basics in Real Life, a case study made in 2017 on Facebook’s free initiative, the application could only be used on the network of the consumer’s mobile plan but couldn’t be used over a Wi-Fi connection in Columbia and Mexico. Whereas in Pakistan, the mobile data connection was so bad that the application asked its users to run it on Wi-Fi. Regarding language, Free Basics only offered its users two: English and a popular national language (depending on the country) with the exception of Ghana where English was the only language available for users. Provided websites, content and services varied by country; most of them had similar global websites like Wikipedia and others had local news platforms. An example of which is El Tiempo in Columbia.
Facebook’s free initiative, regardless of several controversies, has become popular in many countries. However, how much of a win-win situation is it really? Free Basics has helped many people get a better less-expensive internet connection and experience, and has introduced the internet’s benefits to newcomers. However, Facebook’s relationship to its users, most importantly to internet-naïve ones, is toxic. Facebook already gathers a ton of data from users all around the world, but with Free Basics, it’s gaining even more data from developing countries. Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s Europe, Middle East and Africa vice president, explained how Africa has potential of bringing in millions of users over to Facebook and to the Internet in general (Spillane, 2015). That’s what pushed Facebook to create a free alternative for countries who are concerned about paying for data usage. However, Facebook’s intention of connecting developing countries to the internet isn’t all innocent. In other words, Facebook wants an excuse to make more money. The social media company already generates more than 90% of its revenue from advertisements (Spillane, 2015), but it wants to expand its profits by exploiting data usage from developing countries. If Facebook manages to build a consumer-base in Africa, it will be able to generate even more money due to the massive data traffic that it would get from users.
Overall, I think that Facebook does truly want developing countries’ economic and digital democracy to improve. Not only that, but it also strives to make a profit out of all efforts of doing so. Although Facebook means well, it did somehow approach the idea in a colonialist manner. Facebook should know better than to oblige its users into consuming enforced resources (websites and services) for the sake of being connected to the internet. Mark Zuckerberg once said how “some internet is better than no internet”, well, I do, to a certain extent, agree with him. But with Free Basics’ restrictions and limitations, people are better off with no internet rather than forced internet.
Advox. (2017, July 27). Free Basics in Real Life. Advox Global Voices. Retrieved from https://advox.globalvoices.org/wp-content/.../FreeBasicsinRealLife_FINALJuly27.pdf
Backchannel. (2016, February 2). How India Pierced Facebook’s Free Internet Program. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/backchannel/howindiapiercedfacebooksfreeinternetprogram6ae3f9ffd1b4#.66h5946ip
BBC. (2016, February 8). India blocks Zuckerberg’s free net app. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35522899
Bowles, N. (2016, April 13). Facebook’s ‘colonial’ Free Basics reaches 25 million people — despite hiccups. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/12/facebook-free-basics-program-reach-f8-developer-conference
Shiva, V. (2015, December 29). ‘Free Basics’ will take away more than our right to the internet. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@drvandanashiva/free-basics-will-take-away-more-than-our-right-to-the-internet-4d39422fe122
Solon, O. (2017, July 27). ‘It’s digital colonialism’: how Facebook’s free internet service has failed its users. The Guardian. 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. Bloomberg Business. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/20150629/facebooksnextbillionlikesdependonanadveteraninafrica
Spillane, C. (2015, June 24). Facebook to Offer South African Cell C Users Free Web Access. Bloomberg Business. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/20150624/facebooktooffersouthafricancellcusersfreewebaccess
Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Basics
Zephoria. (2017, September 17). The Top 20 Valuable Facebook Statistics — Updated September 2017. Retrieved from https://zephoria.com/top-15-valuable-facebook-statistics/