“Is connectivity a human right?” It was with this question, emblazoned across the front page of a white paper signed by Mark Zuckerberg himself, that Facebook announced its Internet.org partnership in 2013. A private tech coalition launched with the stated objective of “making internet access available to the next 5 billion people,” the project has floated proposals ranging from low-flying Wi-Fi-emitting drones to laser-equipped broadband satellites. But its flagship project is a little more down to earth: Free Basics, an app that allows users in developing countries to connect to a limited version of the internet for free. Now, Facebook is in talks with government officials and wireless carriers about the possibility of expanding the service to the United States.
Free Basics is billed as a platform to provide free cell-phone data access to everyone living in areas covered by privately owned mobile networks, which includes around 96 percent of the world’s population. The way Facebook proposes to do this is through a practice known as zero-rating, which enables users to access certain services and sites without being billed for data usage. Once they sign up for a data plan, customers can use Free Basics as a portal to websites like Facebook, Bing, and Girl Effect (an NGO launched by the Nike Foundation), as well as to browse job postings, weather forecasts, and other local services without incurring a data fee. Some cellular providers in the United States have already adopted versions of this practice in an effort to poach customers from competitors with better coverage.
The Free Basics arrangement is pitched as free-market efficiency at its finest: telecom companies get to entice users into paid contracts by offering a data-capped free sample, end users get to access some of the internet for free, and of course, Facebook gets to expand its advertising market and harvest lucrative consumer data from previously untapped segments of the world’s population. (These profit engines made the average Facebook user worth more than $15 a year at the start of 2016, which, with 1.7 billion active users as of July, would add up to more than $25 billion in total revenue for the year.) In practice, zero-rating neither pays for users’ data plans nor extends coverage to digital dead zones, but acts a portal to a gated, hamstrung version of the internet, undermining net neutrality by giving an advantage to developers that are able to participate in the program.
Facebook has yet to announce whether a North American version of Free Basics would substantially differ from its predecessors abroad, but the Washington Post confirms that it would target “low-income and rural Americans who cannot afford reliable, high-speed internet at home or on smartphones.” (It is worth noting that people who cannot afford a smartphone are unable to benefit from the service in any of its incarnations.) This is directly in line with how Facebook attempts to package the service abroad, where it is branded as a charitable effort to alleviate poverty in the less connected reaches of the globe. “For every ten people who get access to the internet,” as Mark Zuckerberg generously asserts, “one person gets lifted out of poverty.”
Zuckerberg is not the first to promote internet access as an anti-poverty strategy. His vision bears its ideological roots in a particular strain of development economics that holds that networking technologies have fostered a non-exclusive, knowledge-based economy. This theory—advanced by development practitioners and academics like Manuel Castells—dates back to the early days of the internet, and is neatly encapsulated in a 1996 OECD white paper claiming that, thanks to the rise of information technologies, “knowledge is now recognised as the driver of productivity and economic growth.” Mark Zuckerberg has echoed this sentiment nearly verbatim, arguing in a 2013 video that “we used to live in an economy that was primarily resource based . . . but the future of the world economy is a knowledge economy.” According to this conception, the old problems of material inequality have been largely reduced to one of informational asymmetry, and we need only expand the network to collapse the divide.
At its core, this vision of a knowledge economy affirms the virtues of bootstrap entrepreneurialism; if the world’s poor find themselves on the losing end of the global economy, the Free Basics model suggests that it’s only because they don’t understand the rules of the game. It’s no surprise that Internet.org’s promotional material has emphasized the internet’s utility in advancing equality of opportunity, encouraging the growth of STEM fields, and operating small businesses as a means to escape dependency on factory-floor employment. Proposing deeper market integration as a cure for poverty, the “knowledge economy” reframes structural inequality as a problem of individual initiative. Zuckerberg himself, in the face of immediate political problems, takes this detached techno-utopianism to its limit. In the weeks since the U.S. election, he has largely dodged questions about the implications of Trump’s win—and Facebook’s role in circulating the conspiracy theories and fake news that helped propel the xenophobe billionaire’s rise—preferring to wax optimistic about the virtues of “building the next computing platform in VR” and modeling charter school classrooms after startup offices. Zuckerberg’s vision is neatly distilled in the opening line of the 2015 “Connectivity Declaration,” of which he is a lead signer, alongside such luminaries as Bono and Bill and Melinda Gates: “internet access,” rather than politics, “is essential for achieving humanity’s #globalgoals.”
If the premise of the knowledge economy is flawed, the means by which Internet.org seeks to promote it are more troubling still. The most telling test case has been in India, where the app became the center of a national debate on net neutrality after it was launched in the country last year. Drawing comparisons with colonialism and accusations of economic racism, Free Basics was ultimately defeated in the country by a campaign that coalesced around the slogan #SaveTheInternet and snowballed into one of the largest online protests in India’s history. This victory in India offers a valuable lesson in how to defend the open internet against predatory schemes like zero-rating, and open a path toward wider public access.
It started innocuously enough. On March 27, 2015, just over a month after Free Basics had launched in the country, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (“TRAI”) published its first consultation paper on free data. Calling Internet.org’s practices into question without mentioning it by name, the paper prompted an overwhelming round of public criticism. At its peak, the TRAI claimed to be receiving ten email responses per minute.
The implications of zero-rated data services were at the heart of this outcry. Acting as gatekeepers to determine which sections of the internet could be accessed for free, Facebook was essentially partnering with regional telecom giant Reliance Communications to create a tiered version of the internet that gave preference to websites and services that had been pre-approved to participate in the program. While Zuckerberg heralded the app as a boon for unlocking local creative potential, developers had to be pre-approved to contribute to the free internet, creating an environment where competition was artificially slanted in favor of major firms like Microsoft and Nike.
Internet.org eventually offered a halfhearted about-face in response to overwhelming criticism, rebranding its zero-rated app as “Free Basics by Facebook” and opening the platform to developers while retaining the gated submission process that remains in effect to this day. As the public outcry continued, TRAI continued to hesitate, floating a final consultation paper on differential pricing for data services in December 2015. Having expected an easy, even triumphant Free Basics launch in India, Facebook was now in desperate defense mode. The company even launched its own “Save Free Basics” campaign, a multimedia advertising effort that prompted Facebook users (including some who did not live in India) to flood TRAI’s inbox with misleading, ready-made form messages. Irritated by this spam-like tactic, TRAI pushed the consultation deadline back from the end of December to January 7, and asked Reliance to suspend Free Basics pending their eventual recommendation. A month later, in a decision that was lauded by net neutrality advocates worldwide, TRAI finally ruled against the practice of differential data pricing, banning zero-rating once and for all. Malavika Jayaram, executive director of the Digital Asia Hub think tank and leading critic of Facebook’s Free Basics, described the victory to VICE Motherboard as one of an “Indian David vs. Facebook Goliath.”
Despite this major setback, Free Basics has continued to crawl across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, bringing some 40 million users in 53 countries halfway online with it. Aside from a handful of promotional highlights, there is very little evidence that the app has yet had a significant positive impact on the lives of its users. To date, one of the more thorough investigations of Internet.org’s impact has been a 2015 survey conducted by Quartz. Seeming to affirm Facebook’s self-serving interest, one of their most significant findings was that 65 percent of respondents in Nigeria and 61 percent of respondents in Indonesia agreed with the statement that “Facebook is the internet.”
If it is difficult to demonstrate that Free Basics has substantially empowered its users, Internet.org is not shy about advertising the profits in store for telecom companies that choose to partner with it. The organization boasts that “over 50% of people who use Internet.org pay for data and access the broader internet within 30 days.” Cellular networks stand to benefit from Free Basics precisely because it is an unsatisfactory service: once users get a taste of data access, many are hooked and take on data fees to access websites that are not included for free. It’s hard to blame them; a Free Basics user would not even be able to load the promotional footage on Internet.org’s website without paying a fee to their cellular provider.
With a small handful of exceptions, Internet.org has generally partnered with only one mobile operator per country. Whether they are minority-market shareholders (such as Indosat in Indonesia or Movicel in Angola) or transnational behemoths (like Digicel and Tigo in Latin America), this gives an incentive for almost any telecom provider to offer Free Basics: small firms stand to lure contracts away from larger companies with better service, while monopolistic operators can consolidate their dominance by undercutting would-be competitors with a free data plan. This might be sound logic from a business standpoint, but if Free Basics is primarily a gateway into a paid contract, one is left wondering where the humanitarian intent got lost.
At best, Free Basics acts as a global advertising initiative, offering a severely limited free sample with the objective of enticing the world’s poorest populations into paying for services that already exist. At worst, it is an exploitative measure that preemptively corners emerging data markets, creates an artificial hierarchy of content by privileging Facebook-friendly developers, and gives the social media leviathan access to a free stream of valuable data on everything users do with the service. Ultimately, Internet.org’s biggest benefactor is its maverick standard-bearer, Facebook CEO and fourth-richest man in the world Mark Zuckerberg, whose net worth stands around $50 billion.
As long as data are peddled as private goods, the so-called knowledge economy will continue to develop according to patterns of unequal accumulation and distribution that far predate the advent of Wi-Fi. India’s historic ruling against differential data pricing offers a useful blueprint for protecting the internet from private censorship (the FCC, despite ruling in favor of net neutrality last year, has issued no such decision in the United States), but the fight for an open internet does not address larger issues of accessibility. If universal, equitable data access is to become a reality, there are a number of precedents to suggest that the public sector could succeed where a patchwork of corporate and philanthropic efforts have failed.
Municipal broadband offers one such solution: by laying and operating their own cable, local governments can provide subsidized data to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it. Although it has since been gutted by the country’s now-governing Liberal/National coalition, Australia’s National Broadband Network (established under a Labor majority in 2009) remains one of the most ambitious public broadband efforts to date, providing coverage to over 3.5 million premises and counting. Similar schemes have also been attempted in the United States, with prominent examples in Lafayette, Louisiana, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Kitsap County, Washington, and a handful of other municipalities. While initially promising, these projects have been chronically underfunded and repeatedly hamstrung by government officials, who often side with the powerful telecom lobby. Although the FCC recategorized internet service as a public utility in 2015, at least twenty states have passed laws blocking its expansion, and a federal Court of Appeals decision reaffirmed those laws this August. Despite his vague promises to strengthen American infrastructure, Donald Trump has already signaled towards an administration that will redouble its efforts to restrict public broadband in the United States. So far, he has named two private-sector insiders to head his FCC transition team: Mark Jamison, an outspoken opponent of net neutrality who has gone as far as to question the existence of the FCC itself, and Jeffrey Eisenach, a regular consultant to Verizon whom Politico described as “an avowed crusader against regulation.” Together, they are widely expected to make the FCC into a lapdog for corporations like Comcast and AT&T.
While there are good reasons for municipalities to lay their own broadband cable, it’s not the only way to provide public internet access. Another strategy would be to take advantage of the extensive infrastructure already in place. Virtually everyone in North America (99 percent) and some three-quarters of the entire world population already lives within reach of a 3G or 4G broadband wireless signal. Around 1.3 of the 4.1 billion people who currently lack internet access—the majority of them in developing countries—are blocked only by cost. If you factor in basic 2G service, as many as 3.9 of those 4.1 billion people are covered. This means that if, instead of laying new cable, governments were to open access to these networks through new policies, nearly everyone on earth could have affordable internet service overnight (and the majority could have broadband). There are a number of ways to imagine such regulations taking shape, from an income-based data subsidy to outright nationalization of telecom networks—an unlikely option in most countries, though not inconceivable. All that stands in the way of opening these private networks to public use is political will.
Networking technologies will never be a silver bullet, and we can’t expect to eliminate inequality by pretending that the internet’s mere existence has supplanted the material economy with an open web of knowledge. Still, the expansion of democratically regulated internet services could bring at least modest benefits to the world’s poorest. Zero-rating models like Free Basics, on the other hand, only serve to deepen preexisting inequalities of opportunity. There is no reason to think that they present our only option for expanding democratic access to an open internet. If Mark Zuckerberg truly believes that connectivity is a human right, he should agree that profit-hungry interests have no business as its gatekeepers.
Evan Malmgren is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn.