Is A Free, Ad-Laden, No-Privacy, Walled-Off Version Of The Internet Better Than No Internet At All?
from the welcome-to-the-not-quite-Internet dept
Overseas there has been a growing push to draw in more Facebook and Google users by making it so select Facebook or Google content doesn’t count against your mobile data plan. From the Philippines to Kenya, you can see these efforts exemplified by services like Facebook Zero and Google Free Zone. Facebook Zero, for example, allows you to browse Facebook almost as normal, though you’ll be charged normal data rates if you try to download something like photos and video, or in some cases if you travel to any other website.
Now, news has emerged that Facebook is spending $60 million to acquire drone-manufacturer Titan Aerospace. The idea is that Facebook could use these drones to provide fly-over connectivity for lower income nations. While it makes for good headlines whether that ever actually happens is pretty dubious, given there’s a long history of mixed results when it comes to providing broadband by aircraft, whether that’s via hot air balloon, Santa sleigh or drone. Really, when it’s all said and done, it’s an effort to grab a larger chunk of potential ad eyeballs under the pageantry of purported altruism.
Here in the States, we haven’t experimented with the idea of free gateway access yet much, though companies like T-Mobile prepaid brand GoSmart have hinted at the idea. Speaking at the Mobile World Congress trade show this week in Barcelona, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that he’d really like to see his expanded free ambitions take off further in additional countries:
“Zuckerberg said that Internet.org, which Facebook and other partners announced last year, is designed to create a reliable program to help “on-ramp” those customers to the Internet by offering a free tier of service, much like 911 on the wired telephone network. “We want to create a similar kind of dial tone to the Internet,” Zuckerberg said…Facebook’s work with wireless carrier Globe in the Philippines has doubled the number of people there accessing the Internet. He said in that program Globe is making access to Facebook free and then charging for access to other sites. In a separate effort in Paraguay, where Facebook is working with operator Tigo, the number of people using data has jumped 50 percent, and the number of people using it daily jumped 70 percent, by offering free access to Facebook.”
Usually, these statements are followed by citing a lot of studies about how improved Internet penetration helps developing nations (studies focused on actual Internet access, not Zuckerberg’s definition of it). Critics contest these users aren’t really being connected to the actual Internet and all that entails. They’re being connected to bizarre new walled-garden universes where privacy doesn’t exist, connectivity is fractured, and they themselves are the product. Is this helpful if you step back and take a longer view? Folks like Susan Crawford don’t seem to think so:
“For poorer people, Internet access will equal Facebook. That’s not the Internet—that’s being fodder for someone else’s ad-targeting business,” she says. “That’s entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination—a crucial limitation on human life.”
I honestly find myself quite torn between thinking that any connectivity is better than none (it depends entirely on the implementation of the effort), and the idea that we’re establishing a painfully-low baseline of expectation in developing countries in terms of what the Internet is supposed to be. How different is what Facebook is doing from AT&T’s sponsored data idea when you strip away a few layers, and if people are introduced to the Internet as a fractured, distorted walled garden at their first encounter with it, what does it evolve into for them down the road?