Mark Zuckerberg’s Missionary Repositioning

Photo courtesy of Thomas Renken under a Creative Commons license.

I’m the CEO, bitch.

Not the most politic introduction but it’s how Mark Zuckerberg chose to announce himself. Ten years after he played this card Mr. Zuckerberg deigned to explain to the people of India what Net neutrality means. Through myriad advertisements and selected op-ed articles he argued that Net neutrality is a great idea that he firmly supports but poor Indians also need internet access. That’s like saying, I love you but [fill in the rest]. But is a conjunction that tends to negate the preceding statement. It doesn’t take a grammar Nazi to figure out that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t really support Net neutrality. One set of rules apply in America; another set of rules apply in India. However, it is not Mr. Zuckerberg’s hypocrisy that’s at issue. There is something more fundamental to Indian women.

Equal access.

In essence Net neutrality implies that all internet data should be treated equally, that there should be no fast or slow lanes on the internet, nor that users should pay differently for accessing certain kinds of websites, or be restricted in which content they can access. While the principles of Net neutrality apply across the entire internet they have profound implications for emerging economies like India, and especially for Indian women. The notion of a level playing field, where all users have the same access is fundamental to the success of new business ventures and free speech. Put another way, do women in this country need any more impediments to upward mobility or having their voices heard than they already do?

The debate in India about Internet dot org and Zero-rating has been extensive and emotional. Opposing forces have taken the view that both of these essentially subvert Net neutrality, whilst more recent supporters are taking the blunt instrument approach that suggests Net neutrality advocates are elitist and anti-poor. I have not read — although quite possibly missed — any discussion of what all of this means for women. As of September 2015 India had 350 million internet users, of which 236 million were mobile internet users. Of these two figures the latter is more salient to any discussion about Internet dot org and zero-rating because at its most fundamental the debate is about smartphones: they are Facebook’s primary means of access; they are how telcos — a.k.a., zero-rating enthusiasts — make their money. Neither are in the business of gender equity which partially explains why only 11% of smartphone users in India are women.

Even with projections for the next few years suggesting the smartphone gender gap will be somewhat reduced none of this favours the rural poor, a demographic Mr. Zuckerberg claims to champion. Women in poverty continue to be suspended in entrenched cultural norms that are highly resistant to change. Whether it’s thinking that girls don’t need an education or that women should busy themselves with housework and raising children. The internet will only give them funny ideas. But it would be unfair to suggest that all women would not benefit in at least some small way from Internet dot org. Studies have already established that zero-rating services are a big hit with the urban elites. Affluent users with multiple mobile contracts can zero-rate their way to Facebook and spend as much time being ad-targeted as they please. That’s what you call an uptown benefit.

Women, rich or poor, are not always given a choice which is consistent with Mr. Zuckerberg’s approach. Internet dot org doesn’t allow users full access to the internet. Rather, the content is “curated”, a fancy way of saying that users are only allowed to access a scintilla of the internet. It’s more like a terraced tea plantation with the poor having access only to its lowest tiers. Countless research papers have demonstrated that schemes such as the one Mark Zuckerberg is proposing don’t do any favours for those using them, and in a number of countries have been banned outright. Some have argued that Internet dot org is a kind of economic racism, exploiting the poor to become Facebook customers under the pretence of public spirited generosity. What the needy end up getting are not much more than digital scraps, a poor internet for poor people.

Internet dot org is fundamental to Facebook’s acquisition strategy for “the next billion”. Facebook is experiencing a kind of market saturation in the West and are looking to the emerging economies to continue its growth. India is prime real estate for all the right reasons: an open and rapidly growing market (unlike China which is closed to Facebook); smartphone use is increasing exponentially; and mobile carriers are keen to partner with Facebook. The world’s largest social network knows what everyone else knows. The next billion users will come onto the internet via a mobile device, and for most it will be their sole connection. Facebook wants to own its users first exposure to the Web. The poor will become embedded into the Facebook platform, planted like seeds to be harvested one day.

Prime Minister Modi recently traveled to Facebook headquarters where he participated in a town hall meeting, discussing the importance of women and the role of social media in democracy. I can’t say that I’m a fan of Mr. Modi’s politics but I do respect that he came from humble beginnings, worked hard, and made something of himself. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he came from a poor family, the same demographic Mark Zuckerberg is attempting to target. I can’t imagine that a young Narendra Modi would have been satisfied with a tiny portion of the internet, that so little would have been enough to feed his expansive ambitions. And I don’t think he would appreciate that his mother would be equally short-changed. If there is one thing that scholars agree on it’s that zero-rating threatens innovation. It creates an un-level playing field, distorts competition and interferes with user choice, none of which are conducive to economic growth in India. Less discussed is how zero-rating and entities like Internet dot org diminish freedom of expression, or speech diversity. The world’s largest democracy doesn’t need another restriction on speech rights and neither do its women, regardless of how Mr. Zuckerberg wants to frame the benefits.