When Face­book wants to con­trol the in­ter­net

Khaleej Times - - OPINION - EllEry robErts bid­dlE

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.