Not So Free Basics

In the United States and most of the free world. Access to the internet may seem like more than a luxury, at times it seems like a basic human need. We live every day with our survival needs in mind; food, water, shelter, and the internet?

Suffice to say, very few of us could imagine going even a day without access to the web. When my service provider goes down for even a few hours I find myself at a loss of what to do in the meantime. Yet the harsh reality is that though half the world has access to the internet, there is an entire half of the world’s population which does not, and this is where Facebook took the initiative to step in and insert itself as the savior of the developing world.

In 2013 Facebook began its internet.org campaign with the goal of bringing internet to the masses in areas without service providers. Through the use of mobile cellular networks, Facebook was to provide basic internet functionality in a suite of apps which Facebook dubbed Free Basics. Internet is a human right after all, so Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg claims; however if this is the case, then why does the whole campaign reek of ulterior motives? As the common saying goes, if you aren’t paying, you are the product.

Since its launch, Free Basics has been marred with controversy and complaints. The service it provides is just as the name implies, free and basic. Many users complain that calling Free Basics internet is an insult to both the internet and their sensibilities. More importantly, the service seems like an attempt by Facebook to corner the internet market rather than a true humanitarian effort. Though Facebook claims the internet.org initiative comes from a place of generosity and altruism, users of the Facebook service are often prompted to upgrade their service to paid full access internet, once again serviced through Facebook and associate providers. 40% of users go for this option at some point.

While FreeBasics as a concept has merit as a way to introduce the developing world to the internet, Facebook’s approach to the situation seems opportunistic and underhanded. Facebook as a company is not one that has shied away from controversy as of late. Although one would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t at least tried Facebook as a social media platform, the service is known for a series of maligned, and borderline illegal practices such as selling user data, storing private information, and conducting social experiments on unsuspecting users. My point being that when Facebook claims to offer a free service for humanitarian purposes, there is doubt in my mind that they do not have their own interest in mind.

By cornering a developing market of the internet with their own service, Facebook has the opportunity to establish itself not just as the sole internet provider in these areas, but as the very definition of internet. All content that goes to and from these developing parts of the world will go through Facebook’s service, and with little in the way of competition, they will effectively be unchallenged in their efforts.

Whats so bad about all this? One might ask.

The issue is that this type of control undermines the concept of net neutrality in its entirety. With little in the way of regulation or competition, Facebook can make the internet into an ideal image as it sees fit. It can control, what, when, and how people see content, and it can do so with little fear of consequence or backlash.

I’m not necessarily saying that Facebook is evil, or that this service is without any merit whatsoever, however I do find it necessary to stay informed about the potential consequences of such actions. By all means FreeBasics and the internet.org initiative may well revolutionize net access for these areas, however that does not mean that the public at large should not remain informed and wary of the possibility for abuse in these systems.

Information regarding Free Basics and internet.org were taken from this article from The Washington Post

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