Facebook Instant is Bad for User Choice and Bad for Network Neutrality

Instant articles are quickly gaining widespread adoption, but this seemingly simple interface change is a way for Facebook to assert control over your user of the entire Internet.

Like many of us, I have my own routine when I go through my Facebook Newsfeed. For me, this is just one of my various “feeds” and I have developed my own little system for streamlining my information diet in a way that it is manageable. I quickly move through my feeds, and click on items that I’m interested in. If it is something short, I read it and move on. If it is longer, I send it to my Pocket (www.getpocket.com), which then syncs to my Kindle (www.p2k.co) for reading later when I’m on the bus or in bed. Because I’m frequently on my phone, I also use Brave Browser (www.brave.com) so that I can queue up several interesting things in the background without leaving my newsfeed.

One of the things that makes this workflow possible is that, as the user, I am able to choose how I view content. I have chosen to view content shared with me using Facebook outside of the Facebook app. My phone operating system makes it easy for me to share content between apps easily, allowing me to quickly send something to Pocket or send to a friend via WhatsApp or email to my parents.

Facebook, however, wants very much to keep me within the Facebook app. Keeping users inside the Facebook garden help to ensure users are seeing their ads and generating revenue for them. The default settings for the Facebook app use WebView to show me web content within Facebook, rather than sending me along to my browser of choice. This can be turned off in settings if, like me, you prefer to use another app to view the content.

Recently I clicked on an article that a friend in my Facebook feed had shared. The article opened, rather beautifully, within the Facebook app. Initially I thought that an update to the app had reset the settings, and I went to the app settings to check, but it was already set to have links opened with the browser. So why was this link opening within Facebook? It turns out that this is part of Facebook’s Instant Articles feature, a program where Facebook works with content creators to have the content hosted by Facebook and displayed within the app, “instantly.” You may have noticed these articles from publishers like Guardian, New York Times, Buzzfeed, and others with a little lightening bolt in the corner of the photo.

Some will argue that this is good for the user. Articles, theoretically, load faster because they are hosted on Facebook’s network. The experience is beautiful and consistent for all users, because it is controlled by Facebook, and not variable based on the browser. However, this also restricts the user into consuming content only within the Facebook ecosystem.

If I want to share the article, my only option is to share it within Facebook. If I want to read the article, I can only read it within Facebook. My only way out of this walled garden, is to copy the link and paste it into another app, a crude workaround considering this sharing functionality already exists, but has been blocked by the Facebook app. This entrapment becomes even more insidious when it works the other way around. Links from Facebook Instant partners’ websites that are shared to Facebook will be automatically converted into Facebook Instant articles, even if the original source was a regular web address.

For the content creators, Facebook Instant is an attractive prospect. They get closer, cleaner, and faster access to Facebook’s enormous base of users, and they get to (for now) keep the advertising revenue. It also allows them to focus on the creation of the content, without having to worry as much about the medium. For Facebook, this is another way to ensure that user’s perspective of the Internet is carefully controlled by Facebook, and entails primarily the Facebook experience.

Well, okay, perhaps I’m making too much of this. Powerusers may complain of their carefully crafted workflows and interfaces being disrupted, but for the average user this makes a more pleasant experience, so what is the big deal?

Beyond User Preference

Facebook has recently come under some criticism for its programs to offer free Internet to large parts of India. This criticism is because its “Free Basics” program does not give access to the entire Internet. Free Basics gives free mobile Internet access to Facebook and a handful of other sites. As TheVerge reports “[critics suggest that] by subsidizing content, companies like Facebook get to pick and choose winners, creating incentives for customers to use certain services because they don’t eat into their data.” This is exactly the type of situation that Network Neutrality proponents have warned us about, one where the players like Facebook are easier or cheaper for users to access than fringe or competing sites, and consequently people flock to these portals naturally. With Free Basics, it opens up Internet access to a vast number of people who otherwise wouldn’t have had any Internet, but they are viewing a small slice of that Internet, and Facebook is choosing what is in that slice.

Although Free Basics seems to be failing to take hold in India, the network neutrality picture isn’t limited to India. In many countries, mobile service providers engage in zero-rating schemes. Carriers will provide low-cost data packages or add-ons that treat Internet traffic differently depending on where it is going. For example, my mobile carrier offers a Social Internet package for a fraction of the cost of a regular data package. This package provides 500mb of monthly data, but only to Facebook and Twitter, all other sites are limited to just 20mb for the month. This scheme incentivizes users, especially low-income users, to keep their Internet activity within the Facebook app. If I am reading an article on Facebook Instant, it counts towards my Facebook data, even if the content is provided by an outside publisher. The Facebook app will even warn me if I click on a link that will take me out of the app, notifying me that additional data charges may apply.

Centralizing distribution of content can also increase risk of information not being properly disseminated. If traffic to a particular service, such as Facebook, is congested, or deliberately degraded for political reasons, users will be unable to access media produced by independent publishers because it is all being hosted by the same service.

So Facebook Instant might make that latest article load all fast and pretty on your smartphone, but be aware of what you may be giving up in this change. The Internet is a potentially democratizing platform, but we need to be critical of changes that may seek to control and constrain its freedom.