Facebook Free Basics is a platform that attempts to provide basic internet (on mobile devices) to around a billion people across Asia, Africa, and South America. ‘Free Basics makes the internet accessible to more people by providing them access to a range of free basic services like news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information.’ A seemingly worthy project that has the support of the NonGovernment Organisation Telecom Watchdog (TW),
Unfortunately for Mark Zuckerberg, Free Basics has recently run into some hurdles both in Egypt and India. In Egypt, where the service was shut down on Wednesday, the service had been rolled out to around three million people (of which one million had never connected to the Internet before). Facebook spokeswoman, Ashley Zandy, has commented on the company’s frustration at the shutdown of the project in the North African nation, which had been running (in partnership with telecom carrier Etisalat) for just two months,
‘We’re disappointed that Free Basics is no longer available in Egypt as of December 30, 2015. We are committed to expanding internet access into the unconnected in Egypt and around the world and hope to resolve this situation soon.’
So why is the seemingly positive service running into problems and criticism? In India, critics of Facebook’s service feel that the project serves the company rather than the people – with a number of Internet privacy advocates complaining that it unfairly harms net neutrality on the sub-continent by only providing partial internet access (including the use of Facebook and Whatsapp).
‘If you think access to the Internet is a right like access to health care and clean drinking water, then Facebook should support affordable access to the entire Internet for everyone, not access only to those services that Facebook or its partners deem acceptable.’
Zuckerberg has this week attempted to contend with the cynical view of his free Internet service in an article that appeared in the Times of India, where he wrote,
‘Instead of welcoming Free Basics as an open platform that will partner with any telco, and allows any developer to offer services to people for free, they claim — falsely — that this will give people less choice. Instead of recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim — falsely — the exact opposite. We know that when people have access to the internet, they also get access to jobs, education, healthcare, communication. We know that for every ten people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty. We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet.That’s not theory. That’s fact.’
While net neutrality is cited as the reason for the closure of the project in much of India, for now, there is uncertainty as to why the service has been brought down in Egypt. Despite the overblown criticism of Facebook’s service in India, one has to wonder how a free Internet service (that has made Internet available to around one million Egyptians for the first time) can be such a bad thing – surely something is better than nothing – even if that service does expose people to Facebook as a standard?
While I am not denying the ‘walled garden’ argument, and it is obvious that Facebook does have an expansion of its service carefully interwoven into the fabric of Free Basics. Until the third world locations that Zuckerberg has introduced his limited internet service to can provide a more comprehensive service, then it remains true that it is still providing a communications improvement where there was none.
Carrie Mihalcik writes that ‘free basic Internet service in India has hit an old-fashioned snag: People don’t believe they’re getting something for nothing,’ and she may well be correct in her assertion. Arguably, however, considering the impact of the service being offered without data charges, one could argue that a rather different old fashioned saying comes to mind – don’t look a gift horse in the mouth – because as Zuckerberg rightly points out,
‘We have collections of free basic books. They’re called libraries. They don’t contain every book, but they still provide a world of good.’