Providing free web access to countries like India will benefit the entire world — but which internet will they see?
As web access in the Western world reaches near-total saturation, tech companies are looking for new paths to growth — the most important and obvious being cultivating those on Earth who lack that access. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are on a quest to save Free Basics, their initiative to that end previously known as Internet.org, which aims to provide limited access to internet services to low-income people in developing countries like India.
Free Basics’ most recent snag came two days before Christmas, when the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India instructed Reliance Communications, Facebook’s only telecom partner in Free Basics on the subcontinent, to suspend operations pending an investigation into the net neutrality implications baked into the project.
Free Basics is available in 36 countries (its site still lists India) throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, using what’s called a “zero-rating” approach, where providers of internet access — whether mobile carriers or internet service providers — don’t charge customers for their data usage. (T-Mobile’s “Music Freedom” program is an example.)
Critics worry that collusion between access providers and content platforms like Facebook on zero-rating projects present a serious threat to the neutral internet, the principle under which no website or service is available more readily than any other. The equally rational flipside to that argument is that developing countries like India lack the infrastructure necessary to reliably provide users with robust offerings like Netflix; this doesn’t take into account that most are accessing the web on mobile, with spotty-at-best data coverage — or that much of the population that initiatives like Free Basics are hoping to reach can’t afford data access at nearly any price.
To defend the project following that major setback, Zuckerberg today published an op-ed in the Times of India defending the program. In it, Zuckerberg deploys a well-worn political trope; the everyman shout-out:
A few months ago I learned about a farmer in Maharashtra called Ganesh.
Last year Ganesh started using Free Basics. He found weather information to prepare for monsoon season. He looked up commodity prices to get better deals. Now Ganesh is investing in new crops and livestock.
Later in the piece, Zuckerberg combines that tactic with another old standby, the straw man:
How does Ganesh being able to better tend his crops hurt the internet?
The question isn’t how it hurts the internet, but where. Those services which have the funds to “retrofit” themselves into Free Basic’s walled garden (the program requires sites and platforms be significantly pared down in order to save data and bandwidth) aren’t worried — regardless of whether those services would provide the most benefit to Ganesh and his family. An app or site designed specifically for Indian farmers in the region where Ganesh lives and which has valuable information may be of more benefit to Ganesh… but he’d never know. It’s disingenuous for Zuckerberg to assert that getting a billion more Indians online “isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests” because there “aren’t even any ads” in Free Basic’s version of Facebook — the more people on the web, the more that will join Facebook, the more ads Facebook will sell to all those new eyeballs. That’s not a crime, and neither is trying to provide web access to the underserved and overlooked.
Infrastructure and cost of access are the two largest hurdles for countries like India; there is an enormous opportunity of scale for digital companies from Spotify to Nintendo in that country and others, even with their lower average incomes. Some say an ad-supported model could be an alternative to walled gardens like Free Basics, though Internet.org vp Chris Daniels explained in an Ask Me Anything session that “we haven’t found any business model where ad revenue could pay for people’s access to the internet.” (Ad-supported alternatives have been put forth, like this one from Mozilla.)
The billion-dollar participants in Free Basics/Internet.org aren’t the only ones trying to get the developing world online; Google is in the game, too. The company is looking to provide web access via “wifi balloons” that would form a chain-link fence of access around the entire world. That presents a whole other set of problems like, as India’s communications and technology minister pointed out, the balloons interfering with cellular transmissions.
Reading through the materials and guidelines around Internet.org, and talking to executives at tech companies more generally, one gets the sense that these initiatives have been undertaken with good intentions. Computers changed every (successful) tech entrepreneur’s life for the better, and it’s not hard to believe they’d want to use their collective trillions to return the favor — and to keep their businesses growing. However: A bull may want to peruse a china shop, but may end up breaking whatever it was hoping to buy.