The Economist explains – The Economist (blog)
AT THE Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2013, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s boss, told the assembled crowd of telecom operators, mobile manufacturers and tech executives that there were still far too many people in the world without access to the internet. Facebook would change that with “internet.org”, a collection of apps and services made for people in poor countries and distributed without charge. This seemed like good news: bringing people online has has been shown to aid development and lift people out of poverty. But the service created a fuss in India. In December, India’s telecoms regulator suspended the service pending the outcome of a public consultation, the first bit of which ends on January 7th. Why don’t Indians want Facebook’s generosity?
Facebook’s proposition is simple: not enough people are aware of the internet or the benefits it can bring, so the company offers them a limited experience free of charge on their smartphones, which is where most new internet users come online. If they like what they see, they can buy data packs from their mobile operators to surf the web. According to Mr Zuckerberg, half the people who used Facebook’s free service went on buy access to the wider internet. The service has been launched in 37 countries. (Though it has since been suspended in both India and Egypt.)
Critics, some of whom have organised under the banner of “savetheinternet.in” say that the internet.org offers neither the entire internet, nor is it a charitable organisation, for which .org domain names are usually used. Facebook responded by changing the name of the service in 2015 to “Free Basics”. Moreover, the critics argue that if Indians and other poor-world internet internet users spend the vast majority of their time within Facebook’s walled garden, that would force other businesses to set up shop on Facebook rather than on their own websites or elsewhere on the internet. This would give Facebook enormous power over competitors and indeed over the internet. There is some evidence to show their fears are not unfounded: a survey last year found that millions of Facebook users in the poor world don’t realise they are actually using the internet. Facebook’s critics succeeded in getting Facebook to open up access to Free Basics. The new regime allows any business, including competitors, apply to join if they meet certain technical requirements.
Some opponents of the programme have offered alternative suggestions for bringing people online, such as a government-subsidised data allowance. Supporters of the service argue that competitors to Facebook would quickly offer similar incentives to get online if Free Basics were a runaway success. Moreover, Facebook, Google and others are working on ways to beam the internet from drones, balloons and satellites, which may be beyond the control of national regulators. In the meanwhile, regulators around the world will be watching closely to see what India decides. A report is expected by the end of the month.