Today, Mark Zuckerberg published a lengthy opinion article in The Times Of India defending his attempt to connect millions of people to the Internet via a suite of Facebook-approved apps. It's called Free Basics, and the service lets people with feature phones and other devices access online services without paying data charges.
The program has faced vocal criticism in India and elsewhere from net neutrality activists who fear that Facebook is creating a walled garden that will limit and control who gets to see what on the Internet.
You can't just surf over to anyplace on the web with Free Basics. Which raises the question: Is Free Basics an altruistic effort to connect the world's financially strapped people to information and opportunities, or a neocolonial race to capitalize on those markets?
Indian regulators recently asked one of the country's largest telecom providers, Reliance Communications, to cut off access to Free Basics until it has been evaluated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority and deemed legal (or not). And a rebuttal editorial also published in The Times of India questions why Facebook opted for a suite of apps instead of access to the open web.
Facebook says it built Free Basics as a closed service because it's able to control the amount of data that gets transmitted—that keeps the costs down, which is good for Facebook since it has to get local telecom companies to provide access (the theory being that Free Basics and its marketing leads to full-Internet contracts for those carriers).
And Zuckerberg argues that the value of Free Basics goes far beyond simply sending Facebook messages. Zuckerberg compares Internet access to health care, education, and libraries, and repeats a claim Facebook has made before—based on Facebook-commissioned Deloitte research—that "for 10 people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty."
In the article, he says that, "Research shows that the biggest barriers to connecting people are affordability and awareness of the internet. Many people can’t afford to start using the internet. But even if they could, they don’t necessarily know how it can change their lives." He adds the claim that "half the people who use Free Basics to go online for the first time pay to access the full internet within 30 days."
Free Basics includes job-hunting apps like blue-collar work service Babajob (listed as "Babajobs" on the Free Basics website), as well as apps that provide health and local services information. Facebook's guidelines for being accepted into Free Basics seem fairly clear—if not particularly detailed beyond technical specs— and open. Apps don't even have to comply with Facebook's regular Community Standards. (After facing criticism about its closed, curated app environment, Facebook changed the name from Internet.org to Free Basics—indicating the more limited access—and switched to a more open developers platform to allow more entities to participate.)
The number of apps offered is set to keep growing, and there's nothing to suggest that Facebook is actively censoring apps, though big social media rivals like Google+ and Twitter have yet to add their own services to the program.
In his essay, Zuckerberg goes on to shame his critics. "Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims—even if that means leaving behind a billion people," Zuckerberg writes. (India's population is over 1.2 billion, but it is estimated that only about 243 million of them access the Internet—by comparison's sake, almost 87% of Americans are connected).
Finally, Zuckerberg points out that Facebook isn't trying to make money off Free Basics—"there aren’t even any ads in the version of Facebook in Free Basics," he writes.
But perhaps it's understandable that his critics in the country are concerned. If Facebook becomes dominant because it's offering access for free, and it is determining which services Indians can or can't access, doesn't it control the type of information ordinary people can easily access—and the companies or services that can reach the audience using Free Basics? In his essay, Zuckerberg writes that "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." If Free Basics is a library of apps, what happens when Facebook gets to decide which "books" are offered and which ones aren't?
As others have pointed out, the Free Basics model isn't the only way to connect the masses to the Internet. But to be honest, it's pretty hard to imagine a project to bring the Internet to the world's not-wealthy people that isn't ripe with ethical complications, even government treating Internet access like a free public utility.
Facebook has been studying phone, Internet, and data usage in developing communities for a long time. A few years ago, it sent a team of researchers around the world to learn how locals juggle data plans and use feature phones, so that Facebook could design its services for people who don't have smartphones. And the company is famously testing an ambitious drone program to beam connectivity to remote areas of the world (and Google has been attempting something similar with balloons).
Facebook might be well-armed to execute its vision practically, but it clearly has a lot of work to do when it comes to winning the trust of its vocal opponents in India. It's yet to be seen if Zuckerberg's editorial today, and the advertisements the company is running in India (which opponents estimate cost about $20 million), help change hearts and minds.