Facebook Quietly Backs Away From Its Net Neutrality Killing 'Free Basics' Program Overseas
from the the-AOLification-of-the-internet dept
And overseas, Facebook has routinely undermined net neutrality — at times under the banner of altruism. Thinking it could corner the ad market in developing nations, Facebook has been pushing for years something known as “Free Basics” under its Internet.org initiative. Under Free Basics, Facebook delivers users a free, AOL-esque walled garden version of the internet featuring content from Facebook-approved partners. But the program quickly came under fire by content partners who didn’t like Facebook being the curator of what gets viewed. Others criticized the program for at one point banning encrypted content.
Countries like India ultimately wound up banning Free Basics as a violation of net neutrality, viewing the program as little more than glorified collusion — since a cornerstone of the project involved Facebook determining which services users will be able to access. Users in these nations, meanwhile, began conflating “the internet” with Facebook itself, which is what Facebook obviously wanted, but which presented a whole host of new problems.
As Facebook saw heated opposition from Indian net neutrality activists, its response to the PR kerfuffle was pretty terrible. While it was abundantly clear the program held cornering developing ad markets as its primary agenda, Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that net neutrality supporters worried about Facebook’s plans were simply extremists who were hurting the poor. And at one point, the company launched a campaign that attempted to trick Indian citizens into rooting against their own best interests on this subject by spamming the government in opposition to real net neutrality.
Opposition to Facebook’s version of the future has since spread to additional countries, and reports indicate that Facebook is slowly walking away from its Free Basics in a number of developing nations:
“Myanmar is not the only place where Free Basics has quietly ended. The program has been abruptly called off in more than half a dozen nations and territories in the recent months, according to an analysis by The Outline. People in Bolivia, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Republic of Congo, Anguilla, El Salvador, and Saint Lucia have also lost access to Facebook’s free internet program. Additionally, Facebook was testing Free Basics service in Zimbabwe in mid-2016 in partnership with local telecom operator Telecel. The test program has yet to materialize into a wider roll-out.”
The company continues to expand the program in some areas, but more and more frequently countries aren’t appreciating that Facebook’s effort to “help the poor” involves dramatically reshaping what the “internet” looks like, while putting Facebook in the unappreciated position of gatekeeper of acceptable internet content:
“The most concerning issue with Internet.org has been its unpreparedness to serve and protect the people it is helping come online for the first time. Nikhil Pahwa, a New Delhi-based activist who revolted against the Free Basics program in India, says part of the problem with Internet.org is that it is increasingly becoming a substitute for internet for people in countries such as Myanmar.”
Effectively, Facebook’s Free Basics is shaping the internet experience of users — i.e., the services they can access, the services they cannot access,” Pahwa told The Outline, adding that this creates a filter bubble for users that influences their worldview. “You can see problems crop up in nations where Free Basics is operational and Facebook is dominant.”
None of this is to say that Facebook’s broader Internet.org initiative hasn’t done some good work around the world. But as groups like Mozilla have long argued, if Facebook is so damn concerned about connecting poor people to the internet, it can always simply fund efforts to connect poor people to the actual internet.