Facebook is struggling to make its philanthropic mark on the planet as another country, Egypt, has now suspended Free Basics. While Mark Zuckerberg has stated that he would give many of his shares away, which lead to a spoof message from people saying that sharing a certain post on Facebook would mean they would receive some shares, he has also been involved in bringing internet to the world. To do this, the company had launched Free Basics in an attempt to make the internet accessible to more people.
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. To date, we’ve been able to offer these services to a billion people across Asia, Africa and Latin America. By introducing people to the benefits of the internet through these services, we hope to bring more people online and help improve their lives.
This all sounds very good, but the reality is less positive. Launched in Egypt just two months ago, the country has already suspended it. The service, which was launched through Internet.org, aimed to allow people in Egypt access to some internet services, including Facebook itself.
Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative with the goal of bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn’t have them.
It isn’t exactly known why Egypt has suspended the service. Ever since it was launched globally, Free Basics has come under significant criticism in all countries where it has been made available. One of the bigger issues is around net neutrality, with advocates declaring that internet traffic should be treated equally across the board and that Free Basics, as a company, promotes certain internet pages over others.
Free Basics was offered in Egypt through Etisalat.
Freebasics.com can offer group of Internet services such as below: Facebook, Messenger, Bing (search), Wikipedia (info), AccuWeather (weather), BBC news (global news), SmartWoman (women), BabyCenter & MAMA (health), UNICEF Facts for Life (health), SmartBusiness (entrepreneurship), MoneyMatters (financial literacy), Dictionary.com (Arabic translation), Forasna (jobs), Yellow pages (info).
According to Facebook, some 3 million people in Egypt signed up for Free Basics within two months. Now that the service has been suspended, all of these people are without internet access once again. The service was shut down without notice on December 30. Speculation is that the role Facebook played in the Arab Spring, which saw the ousting of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, played a big part in it.
The Arab Spring has shown the world what is possible when you combine social unrest with brave citizenry and powerful digital tools.
The Arab Spring’s fifth anniversary will happen later this month, so there is a possibility that the two incidents are related. After all, Egypt continues to be a country of great political instability in the eyes of some observers. There may be a government concern, therefore, that the Free Basics service is actually being used to push for further revolution.
But it also seems that the net neutrality issue is a significant one. In December, the Free Basics service was shut down in India. Here, it was carried by Reliance Communications and they were told in no uncertain terms that they should withdraw their support immediately. This was the first major setback, and Facebook still hopes to recover from this once the net neutrality case is resolved.
The goal of Free Basics is very simple. It aims to enable people to access a limited number of websites without having to pay any data charges. The charges, instead, are carried by the mobile operator. The hope is that once people start to experience the benefits of internet, they will be more willing to pay more for a full service, effectively increasing the profits of their mobile carrier while also benefiting people. However, this is a controversial idea, as it does mean that carriers get to decide which websites they believe are of interest to their users and which ones are not. This goes against the free market principle of the internet as a whole.
Net Neutrality is the Internet’s guiding principle. Net Neutrality means an Internet that enables and protects free speech. It means that Internet service providers should provide us with open networks – and should not block or discriminate against any applications or content that ride over those networks. Just as your phone company shouldn’t decide who you can call and what you say on that call, your ISP shouldn’t be concerned with the content you view or post online.
Mark Zuckerbeg, CEO of Facebook, recently wrote an article in the Times of India. His goal was to defend the idea of Free Basics. He stated that the service actually protects net neutrality.
In every society, there are certain basic services that are so important for people’s well-being that we expect everyone to be able to access them freely. In the 21st century, everyone also deserves access to the tools and information that can help them to achieve all those other public services, and all their fundamental social and economic rights. That’s why everyone also deserves access to free basic internet services.
The closing of Free Basics in Egypt has come as a huge surprise to Facebook and Free Basics users alike. To date, no explanation has been given, and the only information that is out there is a confirmation from both Facebook and Etisalat. Many of the websites linked to the Egyptian service have also been taken down, which adds to the intrigue over what is actually going on. Facebook has stated that they are currently working on a way to resolve the situation and restore the internet service. This would suggest that the issue is different than the one in India, where a lawsuit on net neutrality has actually been started and the outcome of this will determine whether or not the service can be started up again. The Egyptian version now simply seems to be ‘on hold’.