When Facebook wants to control the internet
As Facebook expands its global reach, it’s looking to the developing world to increase its 2-billion-strong user base. One pillar of its strategy is a mobile application called Free Basics, a portal that offers access to a limited number of websites at no charge. Facebook promotes Free Basics as a program for social good. The company describes Free Basics as an “on ramp” that introduces the internet to people in the developing world. The goal, Facebook says in its promotional materials, is to “bring more people online and help improve their lives.” The 3-year-old app is available to hundreds of millions of mobile phone users in more than 60 countries.
Bringing more people online is a noble goal. About 50% of the world’s population — mainly people in developing countries, women in particular — is still not online. Internet affordability remains staggeringly unequal across the globe: In Africa in 2015, one gigabyte of data cost more than 17% of the average person’s income, while in the Europe and United States, it cost less than 1%.
But there is no hard evidence that Free Basics is connecting people who would otherwise be cut off from the internet. And the millions of people who do use the free Facebook portal are experiencing something quite distinct from the open internet: Free Basics is a closed space where Facebook picks the content — and profits from users’ data along the way — creating what some people call a “poor internet for poor people.”
The head of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has responded to these criticisms by saying, “It is always better to have some access than none at all.”
A study by the Alliance for Affordable Internet found that most Free Basics customers had used the internet before they began using Free Basics. This and other studies suggest that a large proportion of Free Basics users see the app as a way to get extra free time on Facebook — a way to stay connected with their Facebook friends without using up their data plans — and not as an “on ramp” to the web. Facebook does not appear to be introducing people to the open internet, but it is making it easy for people who can afford smartphones and data plans to spend unlimited time in the company’s closed, for-profit environment.
One reason Free Basics may be missing the mark is that a mobile phone app isn’t a good way to get poor people online. In rural areas, people are often disconnected because their region lacks cables, towers or a signal, rendering a mobile app useless. And the world’s poorest people are typically left offline, regardless of where they live, because they cannot afford a smartphone.
For the people who are getting a taste of the web through Free Basics, what does the app look like? The offerings differ in each region. Researchers testing the app in six countries found that more than half of the websites on the app’s main screen belong to big companies like ESPN, Johnson & Johnson and Disney. Free Basics typically features some news sites (usually BBC and one or two national daily newspapers) and sites dedicated to things like finance and health care. But, at best, a user can see only about 150 websites, all of which are selected either by Facebook or by site operators.
Free Basics users cannot see video. Many photos are removed. And if they want to click a link to explore an issue further, they can rarely do so.
The unclickable links, unloadable videos and paltry supply of websites all appear to be part of an effort to minimize the cost of data traveling through the network. Perhaps those limitations do keep costs down — and make it possible for the service to be free — but this technical design also helps benefit Facebook’s bottom line. It keeps users in a confined space, where the company can monitor and analyze their habits for profit.
Whenever users click a website in Free Basics, that click sends packets of data to Facebook’s servers. The company collects information about the websites that users visit, and other data like their phone numbers.
This is no small matter. The likes and sharing habits of Facebook’s billions of users provide a trove of data to sell to advertisers, eliminating the guesswork of figuring out what consumers care about or want to buy. For any advertiser, from the hyperlocal to the multinational, this is empirical gold.
Facebook has done good work to help improve internet infrastructure, like Project Aries, which uses the radio spectrum to increase internet efficiency and speed in rural areas. It is also a powerful force in internet policymaking around the world. It could become a leader in this type of innovation and a forceful advocate for public policies that would increase internet access.
Or, at a minimum, Facebook could work with telecom companies to help offer users a few free daily hours of internet — the whole internet — purely as an act of good will.
What the company has done instead cuts against the power of the open internet, where people can follow their curiosity, build new knowledge from scratch and participate in civic and economic life at local and even global levels.
Facebook portrays itself as a benevolent entity that is introducing people to the web for the simple reason, cited in Free Basics promotional materials, that “the more we connect, the better it gets.” The question is: better for whom? — Ellery Roberts Biddle is the advocacy director at Global Voices, an
international citizen media organisation. — NYTSYN
The social media giant’s Free Basics users cannot see video. Many photos are removed. And if they want to click a link to explore an issue further, they can rarely do so