As technology critic Evgeny Morozov points out, this is welfarism funded by clicks and not taxes and is accompanied by the erosion of citizen privacy and public interest
When the folks at Wall Street Journal ran a five-point listicle about how much Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had in common, they had little idea that a few weeks later Zuckerberg would take a leaf out of the page of one of India’s most loved political traditions.
A few months ago, the King of Social Media finally realised that the best way to sell Internet.org – the name given to the company company’s quest to provide free Internet – to developing countries would be to adopt the language that its citizens understood; that of freebies and subsidies.
‘Internet.org’, a suite of online applications whose data charges are subsidised by Facebook and a handful of telecom companies, therefore becomes ‘Free Basics’. It would be ingenious if it weren’t so deceptive.
Behind the rebranding
The shift in name works well for Facebook on two different levels.
For one, it is an effective counter to the popular “Internet.org is not the real Internet” argument. This particular line of defence is best exemplified by Josh Levy, the Director of Advocacy at Access Now, who in a piece for Wired argues that Internet.org is really “Facebooknet, a glorified app store that masquerades as the open and free Internet”. Levy’s concerns are echoed to a certain extent by researchers at LIRNEAsia, whose work shows that only a small section of the developing world believes that when they use Facebook, they aren’t using the Internet.
Internet.org, to its critics and detractors, was deceptively named; an attempt at pulling a fast one over the uneducated masses. Free Basics, however, could not be more honestly titled.
If Internet.org was about Facebook watering down the Internet, Free Basics is about acknowledging that impoverished people typically use the Internet in a more limited capacity. If Internet.org was about Facebook creating a poor man’s or two-tier Internet, Free Basics is about viewing the Internet as a resource that can be provided in varying degrees of quality. After all, the mixies and grinders that are handed out for free by Indian politicians aren’t usually top-end appliances; they serve their purpose but also nudge their owner into aspiring for a better, shinier model.
In a recent article for Mint, Osama Manzar, head of the Digital Empowerment Foundation – which played host to one of Zuckerberg’s India visits – points out sorrowfully that Internet.org is not the Internet and that fooling the masses will ultimately lead to Facebook’s undoing. After listing a litany of advantages that the social networking service brings, he declares that he will “not miss even one critical thing in our lives if we don’t have Facebook.”
With Free Basics, however, Zuckerberg and Facebook are no longer claiming to provide the “open and free Internet” that Levy and Manzar cherish. The company, and by extension most other actors in Silicon Valley, is instead looking to provide the unconnected with a critical resource that allows them to communicate, network and have access to basic government, education and health services.
This re-branding runs contrary to many of Silicon Valley’s most cherished principles: In California, the Internet is viewed as an unbounded, almost metaphysical, entity that dispenses innovation and brings about creative disruption. Libertarian CEOs and engineers view any attempt (government-driven or otherwise) at breaking the open and free nature of the Internet with suspicion and wariness.
In Chandoli, Rajasthan however – a village that Zuckerberg visited a year ago – Facebook adopts a more neoliberal, development-studies approach. Here the Internet can be broken, stripped down and simplified as long as it allows people to connect to the global data market. Here, technology companies have no qualms of working hand-in-hand with local governments, who, in turn, are more than happy to outsource their welfare state responsibilities.
When the ideology surrounding the Internet is removed, and we are forced to confront more practical and developmental questions involving Internet access and elimination of poverty, Facebook’s capacity for plausible deniability only increases. After all, if you’re a company that is looking to offer a basic resource for free, you can’t possibly also be a malicious gatekeeper that violates net neutrality; the company’s role as a provider of Internet access gives it the perfect reason to exclude applications that aren’t fundamentally of use to an impoverished person.
Unfortunately for supporters of net neutrality, a number of the criticisms that were initially levelled against Internet.org and Free Basics carry less force after Facebook tweaked its programme, making it slightly more open and accepting of other partners.
A list of questions assembled by a number Internet activists shows that a good number of their current grievances deal with issues of security, privacy, data sovereignty (which apply equally to Facebook as a whole and not just its zero rating attempt) and the practical issues of implementing Free Basics.
The most burning question regarding Facebook – despite allowing any company to apply to be a part of the Free Basics initiative – reserving the right to reject any applicant is unlikely to be resolved in the near future; India’s Internet activists justifiably refuse to compromise and it will be up to India’s regulators to balance the lure of greater Internet penetration against public interest.
No more ambiguity
The fact that many of critiques posed against Free Basics also applies to Facebook as a whole is a pity for two reasons. Firstly, the blinkered focus on zero-rating has stopped us from asking other questions: for instance, when looking at the Internet as a purely developmental resource, what method of free data produces the best economic and social results? While it may be popular to state that rural inhabitants and the poor don’t wish to be trapped in Facebook’s walled garden, the results of a recent Observer Research Foundation survey point out that for Indians who spend the fewest hours online, Facebook is indeed the Internet. For Tier-2 city users who spend less than two hours a day online, over 90% of that time is spent on Facebook; in this case, will the demand for Facebook really fluctuate depending on whether it deploys zero-rating?
On the other hand, Aircel offers a net neutrality-certified, basic free Internet package that is “free” for three months and allows users to browse the web at 64 kb per second. Will this, and other initiatives such as Janaa, prove to be more useful to the unconnected in India? Clearly, more empirical research regarding the effectiveness of non-neutral and neutral free data initiatives is necessary.
Secondly, the focus on the free market and competition concerns that arise from Internet.org needs to be supplemented by a strong critique of Facebook and Silicon Valley’s assault on social democracy.
‘What’s in a name?’ Shakespeare once asked. A name like ‘Free Basics’ removes the ambiguity that surrounds Silicon Valley’s broader attempts at providing digital connectivity to the developing world: technology companies are not simply looking to make a nickel by serving up advertisements to the unconnected. As Zuckerberg put it in the town-hall that he hosted on Wednesday at IIT Delhi, “We want to get the next billion people online and that’s why I am here.”
Private provision of public good?
Facebook, and a number of other Silicon Valley companies, are slowly assuming the role of the government and other public sector actors as a provider and caretaker of public goods: in short, they are helping countries around the world build their respective welfare states. For the Indian government, this is a sweet bargain: by having Facebook and Google provide digital connectivity, it can side-step embarrassing questions regarding the implementation and unfeasibility of the national optical fibre network (NOFN) and the failure of the universal service obligation fund (USOF).
The participation of Silicon Valley-based companies in the construction of a new welfare state manifests in different ways: In Western democracies for example, despite the taxi lobbies that oppose the rise of taxi-hailing applications, Uber is seen as an efficient way of achieving public transport. Earlier this year, in the city of Boston – a few weeks after the state of Massachusetts recognized taxi-sharing platforms as a legitimate form of transportation – Uber “generously offered” to give the city access to its valuable troves of user data; data that will help the city solve traffic congestion problems, fix potholes and decide where to lay new roads. Depending on Uber as a method of public transportation, and using its data as a means of improving the quality of city navigation, comes with its own flaws: The data generated from taxi-sharing platforms for instance, valuable as it may be, will not prioritise public-friendly transportation methods such as bicycles and walking paths.
While Silicon Valley companies and welfare may appear to have nothing in common, their business model of providing services for free and creating value out of user data gels well with the general concept. As technology critic Evgeny Morozov points out, this is a welfare state funded by clicks and not taxes and is accompanied by the erosion of citizen privacy and public interest.
Whether this is the welfare state that India wants is something that needs to be answered. Existing critiques of net neutrality violations and zero-rating would do well to also address the broader question of Facebook and Silicon Valley’s agenda.