Facebook has stumbled into something of an international mudfight over "Free Basics." Free Basics is part of a Facebook-sponsored program that gives people in the developing world free access to cellular data for certain online services — including Facebook and WhatsApp. It's a big part of the company's plan to bring the next billion people online — and to turn them all into Facebook users. But it was temporarily banned in India and shut down in Egypt, spurring the company's CEO Mark Zuckerberg to pen an op-ed asking, "Who could possibly be against this?"
It's a good question! There are few words people like hearing more than "free," and Internet access is a fundamentally useful thing. So it might be hard, at first, to understand why so many people are up in arms about Free Basics. And yet, they clearly are.
Free Basics has been temporarily banned in India while the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) sifts through public comments and explores whether the program violates the principles of net neutrality. The opportunity to comment ends on Jan. 7, and TRAI is expected to rule on the issue by the end of the month.
Free Basics has also been taken offline in Egypt, where Facebook claims over a million people had been using it to get online; the reasons why that happened are still unclear.
Meanwhile, people all over the world — but especially in India — are up in arms about it. Here's the gist of the controversy.
First of all, what the HECK is Free Basics?
Free Basics is a service for smartphones and feature phones. According to Facebook, it means that for people who use it, "websites are available for free without data charges, and include content on things like news, employment, health, education, and local information."
What information is available varies by country. For example, users in Bolivia can access "Wikipedia, 1doc3, Accuweather, Bing, among others," according to Viva, the local carrier Facebook partners with there. Facebook currently works with a total of 31 "mobile operators" to offer Free Basics in 36 countries.
If this all sounds familiar, that's because Facebook has been offering free access to certain sites since summer 2014, only it used to be called Internet.org. Before that, it had an initiative called Facebook Zero, which launched in 2010 and allowed users access to a text-only version of the social networking site.
Here's what Free Basics looks like:
With Free Basics, Facebook is the internet.
Free access to the internet, even a limited version of it, is clearly useful. Yet although Facebook refers to the program in largely altruistic terms, saying they "hope to bring more people online and help improve their lives," there's also a strong growth motivation.
Even Zuckerberg has explicitly acknowledged that the company stands to gain by bringing people online. "It's not all altruism," he told the New York Times in September about providing internet access to United Nations refugee camps. "We all benefit when we are more connected."
Yes, Free Basics is helpful for people who can't afford to pay for data on their cell phones. But it's certainly helpful to Facebook as well, which could eventually acquire millions of, and perhaps even a billion or more, new users.
Facebook clearly hopes that by serving as an Internet on-ramp, it will become a cornerstone internet experience for the people who use Free Basics. This isn't far-fetched. According to a February 2015 study, 58% of Indians and 65% of Nigerians agreed with the statement that "Facebook is the internet."
But people argue that Free Basics violates basic net neutrality principles.
The most fundamental knock against Free Basics is that by providing access to some services and not others, it violates the principle that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally.
As John Oliver established in June 2014, net neutrality can be a...boring topic. Zero-rating — the practice of packaging free data with digital products as a marketing strategy — can also be a little boring. But it's not! In fact, it could have a really big impact on how people around the world access important information online, like videos of dads falling off hoverboards. Or middle school principals dancing. Or, I guess more importantly, the weather.
And say Free Basics lets Facebook act as an internet gatekeeper.
Critics have worried that Facebook plays a significant, if not defining, role in determining which services are bundled with Free Basics. And more importantly, which aren't. Not only does this give Facebook an advantage over competitors, current and potential, but it also means that the company is deciding which services are essential. They argue that the decision of which services are critical and which are not should be left up to the people themselves. One way to do this might be to sponsor data packs that provide people free access to a limited amount of data, no matter which services they use it on.
Yet the platform is open to anyone who meets its technical specifications. This means
that even competitors like Google or Twitter would be at least ostensibly welcome on Free Basics, even if they aren't there now.
Nobody knows how this will play out in the long term.
Zuckerberg claims Facebook has no interest in limiting internet access, and in fact has repeatedly said that half of Free Basics users sign up for full data plans within 30 days of trying the app. But what impact Free Basics — and the plethora of other zero-rated apps out there — have on mobile users in the developing world remains to be seen.
And that, ultimately, is why so many people are fighting about it.
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O'Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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