Many people can no longer remember what the world was like before the internet. There were no social media contacts, no email, no instant messaging, no smartphones, no apps, and so on. The internet revolution was indeed a drastic change, and the way we work and live our personal lives have been modified completely since it became mainstream. And yet, did you know there continue to be 4 billion people on this planet – more than half – who do not have internet access?
Twenty large countries — including China, India, and the United States — contribute the vast majority of those 4.4 billion disconnected people. China’s massive 1.3 billion-person population may be iPhone-crazy, but more than half is still disconnected. In India, over 1 billion people are still offline. And here in the U.S., 50 million people don’t log on.
These were the findings in a report commissioned by Facebook. Facebook is also one of the internet giants who is trying to address this through their Internet.org website. Google is also attempting to change this thanks to Project Loon. Both companies believe that the world would welcome global access to the internet. Unfortunately, over recent weeks and months, it has appeared that this is actually not entirely the case.
While Google has been working hard on Project Loon, which essentially involves releasing satellite balloons that circumnavigate the globe, Facebook has made some more concerted efforts and came up with a very simple project: Free Basics, which is already under threat.
Free Basics is a first step in connecting 1 billion Indians to the opportunities online, and achieving digital equality in India. But without your support, it could be banned in a matter of weeks.
Through Free Basics, Facebook has partnered with a number of phone operators. So far, they have reached out to some 37 countries across the globe where internet access is still poor or non-existent. The goal is to enable mobile phone users to access a number of free internet sites using their smartphone. Access is very limited and includes a simplified version of Facebook, some restricted news content, weather information and some data about health. If users like being connected, they may be inclined to pay for a full service through the operator. According to Facebook, it is an opportunity whereby everybody wins: the world connects and the phone operators are likely to see a significant return on investment.
Facebook has always been a pioneer in terms of offering free things, as they understand that doing so usually gives them greater returns. These returns could be in terms of advertising space, user data, or anything else. Through Free Basics, they essentially extend on this strategy in an attempt to attract a greater number of users, specifically in developing markets. Facebook is believed to be about as big as it is ever going to get, with virtually everybody in Europe and in this country now having an account. Unsurprisingly, they are now targeting those people who haven’t been able to sign up to Facebook yet, which are people across Africa and Asia in the main.
Of course, according to Mark Zuckerberg, this is also a philanthropic act. He wants to do good for the world. Yet, it seems that it is his very philanthropy that is raising suspicion. When Free Basics was introduced, its vision was to ensure people who have not yet connected to the internet would be able to do so. In so doing, the digital divide would be bridged, leading to greater equality. While all these sounded good on paper, there is some significant criticism of the scheme, and it seems as if the voice of the critics is getting louder. This criticism is essentially around the concept of net neutrality.
According to Net Neutrality activists, zero-rating platforms are in violation of the guiding principle of how the Internet should function. TRAI’s paper asks in the end, “Are there alternative methods/technologies/business models, other than differentiated tariff plans, available to achieve the objective of providing free internet access to the consumers?”
Their criticism is mainly that the online world would suddenly become Facebook centered, rather than internet centered. The internet is supposed to be the last truly free place on earth, and Free Basics violates this. This is in contrast to Google, whose Project Loon balloons will simple enable people to get online, regardless of the sites they access.
According to critics, there are two main principles of the internet that Free Basics compromises. The first is freedom and the second is openness. If only a certain number of websites are offered for free, they are given preferential treatment over others as broadband providers will not treat them equally anymore. There is also the possibility that there will be many customers who will not pay for additional services, which means Facebook would have full monopoly over new customers. This goes against the founding net neutrality principles.
Unfortunately for Facebook, there are now two governments that have canceled access. India was first, in December, when the service was temporarily shut down pending public consultation. Several days later, the Egyptian government did the same, but without explanation. Some 3 million people suddenly lost their access to the internet because of it.
On the other hand, supporters of Free Basics argue that what Facebook is doing is an optimistic plan that should be supported. They state that any tech firm could do the same, negotiating with telephone providers about services. Furthermore, the more people who sign up for a service, the cheaper it gets, which means that even more people are likely to get fully online very quickly.
Because our world is now fully online, economic development also depends on this accessibility. It could be life changing for many impoverished countries across Asia and Africa. This has been shown time and again, for instance through the Vodafone mobile phone payment system in Kenya.
Naturally, it is vital that large internet giants are monitored in their actions. And it is also true that Free Basics is only limited. However, can’t it be said that some internet access is better than no internet access?