Facebook’s Free Basics is no charity

Let’s call a spade a spade and see Free Basics as an important part of the business strategy of one of the world’s largest Internet corporations, rather than as a selfless act of charity. By Mark Graham.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Who could possibly be against free Internet access? This is the question that Mark Zuckerberg asks in a piece for the Times of India in which he claims Facebook’s Free Basics service “protects net neutrality”.

Free Basics is the rebranded Internet.org, a Facebook operation where, by partnering with local telecoms firms in the developing world (including South Africa, through Cell C), the firm offers free Internet access – limited only to Facebook, Facebook-owned WhatsApp, and a few other carefully selected sites and services.

Zuckerberg was responding to the strong backlash that Free Basics has faced in India, where the country’s Telecom Regulatory Authority recently pulled the plug on the operation while it debates whether telecoms operators should be allowed to offer different services with variable pricing, or whether a principle of network neutrality should be enforced.

Not content to await the regulator’s verdict, Facebook has come out swinging. It has paid for billboards, full-page newspaper ads and television ad campaigns to try to enforce the point that Free Basics is good for India’s poor. In his Times piece, Zuckerberg goes one step further — implying that those opposing Free Basics are actually hurting the poor.

He argued that “for every 10 people connected to the Internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty”. Without reference to supporting research, he instead offers an anecdote about a farmer called Ganesh from Maharashtra state. Ganesh apparently used Free Basics to double his crop yields and get a better deal for his crops.

Zuckerberg stressed that “critics of free basic Internet services should remember that everything we’re doing is about serving people like Ganesh. This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests”.

Zuckerberg’s indignation illustrates either how little he understands about the Internet, or that he’s willing to say anything to anyone listening.

This is not a charity
First, despite his claims to the contrary, Free Basics clearly runs against the idea of net neutrality by offering access to some sites and not others. While the service is claimed to be open to any app, site or service, in practice the submission guidelines forbid JavaScript, video, large images and Flash, and effectively rule out secure connections using https. This means that Free Basics is able to read all data passing through the platform. The same rules don’t apply to Facebook itself, ensuring that it can be the only social network, and (Facebook-owned) WhatsApp the only messaging service, provided.

Yes, Free Basics is free. But how appealing is a taxi company that will only take you to certain destinations, or an electricity provider that will only power certain home electrical devices? There are alternative models: in Bangladesh, Grameenphone gives users free data after they watch an advert. In some African countries, users get free data after buying a handset.

Second, there is no convincing body of peer-reviewed evidence to suggest Internet access lifts the world’s poor out of poverty. Should we really base telecommunications policy on an anecdote and a self-serving industry report sponsored by the firm that stands to benefit? India has a literacy rate of 74%, of which a much smaller proportion speak English well enough to read it. Literate English speakers and readers tend not to be India’s poorest citizens, yet it’s English that is the predominant language on the Web. This suggests Free Basics isn’t suited for India’s poorest, who’d be better served by more voice and video services.

Third, the claim that Free Basics isn’t in Facebook’s commercial interest is the most outrageous. In much the same way that Nestlé offered free baby formula in the 1970s as development assistance to low-income countries — leaving nursing mothers unable to produce sufficient milk themselves — Free Basics is likely to impedes commercial alternatives.

By offering free access, Free Basics disrupts the market, allowing Facebook to gain a monopoly that can benefit from the network effects of a growing user base. Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, in India, has aptly noted that expanding audience and consumer bases have long been as important as revenues for Internet firms. Against Facebook’s immensely deep pockets and established user-base, home-grown competitors are thwarted before they even begin.

India will not always have low levels of Internet access. This is not the issue — in fact, Indian Internet penetration growth rates are relatively high. Instead, the company sees Free Basics as a means to establish a bridgehead into the country, establishing a monopoly before other firms move in.

There is decades of research about how best to help farmers like Ganesh: access to good quality education, healthcare and water all could go a long way. But even if we see Internet access as one of the key needs to be met, why would we then offer a restricted version?

In presenting Free Basics as an act of altruism, Zuckerberg tries to silence criticism. “Who could possibly be against this?”, he asks:

What reason is there for denying people free access to vital services for communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and women’s rights?

That is the right question, but Free Basics is the wrong answer. Let’s call a spade a spade and see Free Basics as an important part of the business strategy of one of the world’s largest Internet corporations, rather than as a selfless act of charity.The Conversation

  • Mark Graham is associate professor, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford
  • This article was originally published on The Conversation

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  • Lars P. Reichelt

    @MarkGraham: using the argument of net neutrality against Free Basics is misleading.

    I would argue the contrary: Free Basics allows farmers, small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs to launch their businesses, create a market, advertise their products/services, and distribute products to customers. Free Basics has the potential to foster job growth, competition and innovation.

    Other companies willing to invest would certainly find that operators are willing to work with them as well. Facebook made a bold first move and they should be commended for it, rather than critiqued.

    PS: Banning java script, Flash as well as video and large images is a very smart idea. The first too are horribly outdated technologies and the latter don’t add value to connectivity per se.

  • Pieter

    JavaScript is outdated? Do you think that’s air you’re breathing now?

  • Andrew Fraser

    Hi Lars, I’m not sure whether you’re connected to the project (or were while at Cell C), but I think you have missed the point of the argument completely. Net neutrality is a key argument – by limiting secure services, Facebook ensures that it is its own messaging services that are used exclusively. This creates an uncompetitive barrier to entry for other services. This is not philanthropy, this is an acquisition program and to muddy the waters talking about java and flash is to deny the fundamental nature of the project.

  • Rod

    Cumon people – this is just the modern equivalent of a local ‘freesheet’, available to anyone – and sure it contains tons of advertising, advertorials and some usually useful local news – but you don’t have to pick it up if you don’t want to.

  • Lars P. Reichelt

    1. So how do you define net neutrality?
    2. How does FreeBasics create a barrier to entry?

  • Andrew Fraser

    If free basics refuses secure connections, no competing messaging app can offer services. Restriction of protocols means no neutrality. This is not complex to understand.

  • Lars P. Reichelt

    That’s my point, Andrew. It isn’t about net neutrality, but about getting folks onto the internet. And Free Basics does just that.

  • Andrew Fraser

    But it should be about neutrality. By restricting access Facebook is colonising the internet, ‘free basics’ is just the acquisition cost. This isn’t philanthropy, the target isn’t to get more people online, but rather to build a walled section of the internet controlled by facebook.
    If Zuckerberg genuinely has altruistic motives, then he should remove the protocol restrictions and allow competing services.

  • Lars P. Reichelt

    Andrew

    1. Facebook is not colonising the internet, they just have services that people love to use.

    2. The target is clearly to get more people online and Facebook is investing very sizeable sums on FreeBasics

    3. FreeBasics might not allow competing services (why should they…), but they are open for a whole raft of services. Case in point… the Praekelt foundation in JNB: “Inspired by our belief that essential information and services should be free to access, Praekelt Foundation has spent the last year working with UNICEF, Malaria No More, MAMA, Baby Center and The Girl Effect to distribute their content through the Free Basics by Facebook platform, part of the Free Basics by Facebook initiative. Now, Praekelt Foundation is proud to announce a new initiative to accelerate the impact of Free Basics – the Praekelt Foundation Incubator for Free Basics. Over the course of the next year, we’ll recruit and empower more than 100 social change organisations, providing them with the tools and support they need to take advantage of the opportunity to distribute their content and services to millions, in hundreds of languages, across the globe. Click here to apply now.” https://praekeltfoundation.typeform.com/to/QekN63

  • Andrew Fraser

    1. I don’t agree. Facebook does everything in their power to dissuade their users from leaving their garden. Basics is an extension of this.
    2. According to Facebook. But also only the parts of the internet that Facebook approves of.
    3. You forgot to mention: “As long as those services do not compete with any Facebook properties”.

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