Resolving the Free Basics paradox

If we are passionate about creating a level playing field on the Internet, then we must be passionate about making the Internet affordable and accessible to all. By Steve Song.

Steve-Song-180Earlier this week, the Indian communications regulator announced it would forbid the provision of differential pricing for data services on the basis of content. This decision effectively bans Facebook’s Free Basics initiative, which offers access to Facebook and a suite of other content providers for free.

The issue of net neutrality, zero-rating and Free Basics in India has risen to prominence in the past year, with a hugely popular grassroots campaign to encourage the regulator to block such initiatives.

Facebook responded by adapting many aspects of its offering to accommodate public push-back, including renaming Internet.org to Free Basics, opening the platform to more content providers and ensuring the programme was open to all network operators.

But for many, all that amounted to was putting lipstick on a pig.

The stakes of the debate grew higher as Facebook embarked on an expensive advertising campaign in support of Free Basics. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the issue personal by making a public appeal to Indians, asking: “Who could possibly be against this?”

The answer to that has now become clear.

This week’s decision is a victory for those opposed to “walled gardens”, but it is something of a paradox that the Internet itself has become a “walled garden” between those who have affordable access and those who don’t.

If we are passionate about creating a level playing field on the Internet, then we must be passionate about making the Internet affordable and accessible to all. Among the many news articles lauding the decision taken by the Indian regulator, none was written by anyone without access. The disconnected are excluded from the discussion.

It is an uncomfortable truth that, in emerging economies, Facebook had already won the Internet well before Internet.org and the Free Basics campaign began. Facebook became the de facto Internet for many people because it did the most profoundly useful thing the Internet can do: connect people.

Connecting people to each other in meaningful ways is the secret sauce of the Internet and, for the last few years, Facebook has been best of breed at doing that. The 16m people who connected to Facebook in Nigeria this month alone are evidence of this.

From family connections to political movements, Facebook has proven itself to be an extremely powerful platform for people to share knowledge, act collectively, air their frustrations, you name it. Mark Zuckerberg has a real point when he asks who could possibly be against offering this for free.

And yet, this is not okay.

This is not just about Facebook, but every Internet company that has gone to scale — from Google to Uber to Spotify

At the micro level, Facebook delivers exactly what people want: connection and community. At the macro level, where Facebook’s algorithms decide which articles and which advertisements to display to users, things are more complicated. Having a private company that connects over a billion people making decisions about how and when to display information to users is clearly problematic and we currently have no idea how to deal with it.

And of course it’s not just about Facebook, but every Internet company that has gone to scale — from Google to Uber to Spotify, and many others. One of the few antidotes to this problem is consumer choice, the ability to select a different platform if only to be able to compare algorithms across platforms. Without consumer choice, we have no idea whether the beautiful peaches growing in our garden are genetically modified or not because we have nothing to compare them to.

Given the choice between GMO peaches and nothing at all, most people would eat the peach. Indeed, it is morally questionable to argue that those who can’t afford Internet access should forgo free access to Facebook until affordable “neutral” access is available to them.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook - image Ludovic Toinel

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook – image Ludovic Toinel

I believe the only way to resolve this problem is to make the Internet generically free for all users — or at least low-bitrate access to the Internet.

This is the essence of what I advocate for in this modest proposal, in which I argue that connecting all phones to the Internet by default would make good economic sense for mobile network operators thanks to the network effects they would enjoy from having millions more data users.

Prepaid users on mobile phone networks have always enjoyed being connected to the voice networks for free. Operators don’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts, but because it generates traffic — more people to call. Also, a significant percentage of those users will keep an airtime balance, which adds up to a lot of money held by the operator.

A recent Forbes article identifying lessons from mobile money ventures in developing countries identifies the importance of offering the service for free as one of six key lessons. It is hard to imagine that a free, always-on basic Internet for mobile phones would not lead to massive growth in data-rich services. Low-bitrate data for everyone? Why not?

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  • Emma Haniki

    Facebook should just create a wifi carrier and make internet free for people who use their wifi hotspots

  • They do have a WiFi program for businesses to offer to customers https://www.facebook.com/business/facebook-wifi It is a little better than Free Basics in that you can surf the full Internet for free as long as you log in with Facebook.

    When it comes to carrier WiFi, Google is nearer the mark with what they have done in Kampala http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35000544 and it looks like DiData have similar plans in South Africa http://www.techcentral.co.za/didata-naspers-jv-vast-sets-out-wi-fi-plans/61115/

  • Wayne Gemmell

    What’s wrong with GMO peaches?

  • But then who else should make the Internet generically free? Surely the biggest players are in the best position to offer these services free? Surely it’s just as problematic – if not more so – to have a government in command of people’s private information?

    What is wrong with free? There can be plenty wrong with free. There’s no such thing as a free lunch after all.

  • My point about GMO peaches was about being an informed consumer. People should have the right to know what goes into what they are purchasing. This applies to food as much as it applies to algorithms that shape the information we consume.

  • Wayne Gemmell

    Sorry, it does digress from your point a bit. GMO labelling is quite pointless as no crops that we eat aren’t genetically modified in some way. I look forward to the day when we see genetically modified food having informative labels like ‘now with added vitamins’.

  • My point stands. If you think being an informed consumer is a waste of time, we probably don’t have much to talk about.

  • Wayne Gemmell

    Sure, but a big GMO label is fear mongering, not informing. When the aim is to feed > 9 billion people by 2050, it’s best to keep the GMO fud distribution to a minimum.

  • Taking those back of the envelope calculations at face value, it still raises the question of who maintains the underlying infrastructure? I completely agree that internet connectivity should be as pervasive as running water and electricity, but in order to ensure the service can be taken for granted, I fear government has a terrible track record of running the show. And the big players – at least in South Africa – have a similar or worse record of managing resources.

    It could work if a standard, low speed, effectively soft-capped and throttled connection is provided free of charge. It can be paid for with premium users who desire bigger and better speeds.

    I’m not disagreeing with the need for more pervasive connectivity. I’m also more on the side of the Indian government here who are justifiably sceptical about this, but probably just protecting their own local industry.

    Mind you, virtually free internet has been done before and it worked quite well, if BlackBerry’s former glory is anything to go by.

  • I don’t think the point was to jump on the GMO fear-monging bandwagon. It was just a comparison to suggest that it is perfectly reasonable to be transparent about a service that is offered to consumers. Especially if that service seems too good to be true, like Facebook’s bullying of India here.

  • Wayne Gemmell

    True, it does point to an underlying anti-GMO stance though. That said, it’s OT so I’m leaving this thread alone now.

  • Lars P. Reichelt

    @stevesong:disqus This is where we disagree: “Having a private company that connects over a billion people making decisions about how and when to display information to users is clearly problematic and we currently have no idea how to deal with it.”

    A. Facebook is not a broadcast medium, but 2-way comms.
    B. Messenger is included in FreeBasics, ie. users can happily communicate point-to-point.
    C. The “Net Neutrality” argument is a fig-leaf for India’s elite to deny 100 of millions of people an opening to get informed, be informed and communicate with ease. The regulator ruling cements the political and economical status quo, whereas FreeBasics could have acted as a sort of modern age Samizdat to effect lasting change

  • Hi Lars,

    Regarding C, I think you are mistaken about the motivation behind this ruling but I don’t think we can argue that point effectively here.

    Regarding A, I think we are arguing from different sources of knowledge. Algorithms, algorithmic manipulation, and how that shapes online discourse and society as a whole is a pretty big deal. If Facebook were a simple two-way medium, I would accept your point. It is not. Some resources on this:
    https://medium.com/message/how-facebook-s-algorithm-suppresses-content-diversity-modestly-how-the-newsfeed-rules-the-clicks-b5f8a4bb7bab#.exc8m6m4l
    http://pressthink.org/2015/04/its-not-that-we-control-newsfeed-you-control-newsfeed-facebook-please-stop-with-this/
    http://www.danah.org/papers/2014/DataDiscrimination.pdf
    http://ctlj.colorado.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Tufekci-final.pdf

    The opaqueness of the algorithms used by large Internet companies to shape what we see on the Internet is the very reason consumer choice in Internet services is so important.