Not everyone in the world has access to the internet, in fact, in Africa alone, only 120 million people out of more than 1 billion have access to the internet (Spillane, 2015). In order to increase their users, Facebook aimed to partner up with phone companies in less developed or developing countries in order to give people access to the internet for free. Countries such as India, South Africa, in addition to other African countries are among their targets. However, it isn’t as simple or appealing as it sounds, for it comes with many rules and disadvantages which will be discussed further on.
As part of an initiative to spur sales growth, Facebook has come up with a new mobile app called Free Basics. “Free Basics is a Facebook-developed mobile app that gives users access to a small selection of data-light websites and services” (Solon, 2017). At first, users will have access to Facebook’s full version for two months along with free access to thirty preset websites which could offer useful information such as weather information, job posts, and healthcare (Spillane, 2015). After the trial period expires, users would have to pay in order to get the full version of Facebook. Moreover, the preset websites can be browsed for free however pictures and videos are not accessible. This initiative has come under criticism however, particularly in India. The argument centers around how Free Basic can curate what content users see, and present a major hurdle to Indian tech companies aiming to compete with their American rivals (Smiley, 2017).
This criticism draws a more general question over the nature of Facebook’s approach, particularly in how it can be seen as a modern form of colonialism. Colonialism can be defined as the act of establishing settlements or economic exploitation of other countries. (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin, 2002). By creating major technology hubs in underdeveloped countries, they can achieve a degree of economic dominance that benefits western countries. I personally believe that this initiative should be approached as an attempt at colonialism, and that it should be discussed accordingly.
There must be a motive behind Facebook’s decision to implement this new mobile app. Facebook’s goal is to increase their market in order to gain revenue, whether it’s from advertisements or subscription fees. With millions of people joining this movement, Facebook’s revenue will increase tremendously. Their strategy is to get users hooked on the internet during the free two months trial, and once the trial is over users will feel unsatisfied with the limited internet, and thus will pay to have full access. With their user base growing within these countries, they can tap into unprecedented data about these regions and their interests. Moreover, they can sell these analytics to other businesses interested in expanding to these regions. Initially, this may seem like an equivalent exchange between what Free Basic offers and what Facebook gains from it. This is supported by the argument that providing these users with a limited version of the internet is better than no internet.
However, how true is the statement that some internet is better than none? Who said that the people didn’t have access to the internet at all? An example of that would be an Indian farm surveyor who uses Free Basics because it saves him 50 rupees per month, however he has been using the internet for five years before Free Basics (Smiley, 2017). Free Basic offers a clear advantage over existing local Internet providers, and provides Facebook with a monopoly over the internet in India. In addition to that, users who use “Free Basics will hurt them, by eroding an open web that allows for disruption of incumbents” (Smiley, 2017) This form of the internet weakens the power of local governments and the people, while simultaneously empowering large organizations that fall within Facebook’s economic interests.
These disadvantages are precisely why I believe that Facebook are presenting colonialism in a modern package. Facebook realized that despite of the availability of the internet in less developed countries, people were still viewing it as an unnecessary luxury. Thus, Facebook would provide the people with a feasible alternative while enforcing standards to their advantage. For example, they can provide access to websites affiliated with them over local competitors that are in dire need of support from their communities. It also forces the population to mine data for them without providing compensation.
An argument to this would be that Free Basic is simply an option, and that nothing can prevent the user from going for alternatives. However, in countries where the internet is of low priority, offering a version that’s completely free provides a sweeping market advantage. People who previously thought of the internet as a luxury would not be bothered by having a free limited version of the service. Moreover, only a large corporation such as Facebook can benefit from providing this type of service free of charge. By monopolizing the industry, Facebook gains full control over the technology sector of the developing country.
Facebook’s approach with Free Basic requires further assessment before passing it off as an advantageous business practice, or even as a form of colonialism. Its importance lies in its potential influence on other tech industry giants, and how it may entice them to establish similar businesses in growing markets. Even if Free Basic ends up being harmless to these countries in the long run, the influence it would carry on its peers can potentially erase growing IT companies in these regions.
Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (2002). Post-colonial studies: The key concepts. London: Rouledge.
Smiley, L. (2017, June 16). How India Pierced Facebook’s Free Internet Program. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.wired.com/2016/02/how-india-pierced-facebooks-free-internet-program/
Solon, O. (2017, July 27). ‘It’s digital colonialism’: How Facebook’s free internet service has failed its users. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jul/27/facebook-free-basics-developing-markets
Spillane, C. (2015, June 24). Facebook to Offer South African Cell C Users Free Web Access. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-24/facebook-to-offer-south-african-cell-c-users-free-web-access
Spillane, C. (2015, June 29). Facebook Opening Africa Office to Target Next Billion Users. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-29/facebook-s-next-billion-likes-depend-on-an-ad-veteran-in-africa