Mark Zuckerberg stares a little blankly at the camera and gives an example of how a fisherman would be able to sell more fish and provide for his family better, if he had access to the power of the Internet. It is a rousing monologue, where he implores his audience to consider the good that Facebook is trying to do by providing free Internet access to four billion people in developing countries. Facebook calls this Internet.org (or Free Basics, after some rushed rebranding); the larger online community calls it opportunistic capitalism.
Surely this is a noble cause, but why then is it coming under fire from all quarters, leading to the initiative being rebranded and Zuckerberg himself having to clarify the company’s position repeatedly? The answer lies in the bigger picture; this is not a debate about what we are willing to let the company do for the greater good now, but about what it will be allowed to get away with in the future. The worry here, apart from the free, fair nature of the Internet being compromised, is the domino effect this initiative could trigger.
Facebook, Google, Microsoft; all these companies build products that have revolutionised how we live, and as we reap the fruits of their labour, it is easy to forget that at the end of the day, companies need to make money. For example, Google gives away Android’s source code for free, but ensures that manufacturers bundle in all its services, which bring all Android users to its own ecosystem. Their usage of Google services provide valuable data (browsing preferences, location, device details etc.), which allow it to tailor ads for individual users and make revenue. Facebook provides us a way to connect with friends and post wacky selfies on our walls, and in return provides advertisers all the details we put on our public profile to target us with ads, therefore making money. Notice a pattern?
Now all these companies would be only too happy to tap into developing markets like Asia, that teeming mass of billions they could bring to their platforms to earn even more revenue. But when a large section of their target audience is cash-strapped and cannot afford their services, the giants of the information age need to get inventive.
Google tried to bring this section of the population, whom Zuckerberg calls the ‘unconnected’ in his address, into their fold with Android One, where they partnered with local manufacturers to launch ultra low-cost phones running Android. In simple terms, Internet.org is being seen as Facebook’s way of trying to steal a slice, (or rather the whole cake) from the competition.
Coming to the other reason Facebook is getting dragged through the mud, the answer is simple – net neutrality, that debate which raged across all media channels a few months ago when Airtel tried to provide select services for free to its customers through Airtel Zero. The idea behind net neutrality is that users of the internet should have access to the whole Internet without any bias. By allowing services like Flipkart (which was a part of Airtel Zero before backing out), to be accessed without data charges, while charging normal rates for customers accessing competing e-commerce portals, Airtel had violated net neutrality’s principles, creating an uneven playing field for different services in the same e-commerce domain. This is what caused the uproar that led to the push for net neutrality laws in India, so that a decade from now, we won’t be asked to pay separate fees for accessing our favourite websites, all decided by our Internet Service Provider (ISP) or cellular operator.
For all the good it may or may not intend, this is exactly what Facebook is repeating with Internet.org, offering free access to select select services, picked and chosen by it only for Reliance customers, with one of these services obviously being Facebook. Zuckerberg explains that such partnerships are only being adopted in the early stage, and that all network operators and all services are welcome to participate. He also says, crucially, that Facebook will not display ads on the platform, but it will also limit access to pictures and video citing bandwidth constraints. According to him, the opposition is taking an “extreme” position on net neutrality, and that access equals opportunity, with the Internet never becoming equal so long as a majority of the population cannot participate.
This is a situation that tosses up as many problems as it does solutions. While the goal of the initiative is supposedly to introduce the ‘unconnected’ to participate in the Internet, the ‘Internet’ that they participate in will only be a guarded fraction that Facebook holds the keys to. And while Google and other heavyweights have so far mostly steered clear of such drastic measures, allowing Facebook to operate unchecked could lead to more such services, leading net neutrality in India, to slide down a slippery, irredeemable slope.
Perhaps the Menlo Park-based company does have good intentions, but in a time when India is establishing its digital identity and entrepreneurs are thriving thanks to the free Internet we all know and love, Facebook’s move is bound to be viewed with suspicion.
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s unconnected remain oblivious and unable to weigh in, while empowered netizens and companies from halfway across the world try to decide what’s best for them.