Blogs & Comment

The shine is wearing off Facebook’s self-serving scheme

Many in the developing world are fighting back against Facebook’s walled-garden version of the Internet

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg giving a keynote on in New Delhi in October 2014. (Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times/Getty)

You may have seen the billboards recently advertising something called The posters say the next generation of magicians or inventors in developing countries shouldn’t be denied the privilege of connecting to each other because they can’t get onto the Internet.

The ads—which come off as bizarre thanks to their lack of context—are the brainchild of Facebook, as is the whole concept of the effort they’re designed to promote.

If you haven’t heard, is the pet project of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Its goal is to connect the billions of people in developing countries who aren’t yet online by giving them access to certain portions of the Internet for free. Along with Facebook itself, a few health, education and jobs services are exempted from wireless data fees.

Facebook, in partnership with local telecom companies and tech concerns including Nokia and Samsung, has rolled the project out to nine countries including India, Colombia and Guatemala, reaching some 800 million users.

But net neutrality supporters around the world don’t like it one bit—and with good reason. The argument is the same in places such as India as it is in North America: that Facebook, a giant, rich corporation, is skewing the equality of the Internet in its favour by giving users some parts of it for free while the rest remains “for pay.”

The practice is known as “zero rating” and it’s increasingly being frowned on in developed nations. The Netherlands, Slovenia and Chile have explicitly banned the favouring of certain Internet content over others via data cap manipulation, while Canadian regulators effectively outlawed it in January by ordering Bell and Videotron to stop exempting their own chosen video services from wireless usage limits.

U.S. regulators have also taken a dim view of zero rating, indicating in their recent net neutrality rules that any such efforts will be scrutinized for potential anti-competitive effects.

The battle over net neutrality and zero rating has exploded in India too as regulators debate how much control telecom providers should have over Internet access. In a hilarious video reminiscent of John Oliver’s now-famous rant on U.S. net neutrality, Indian comedians have similarly gone viral in outlining what’s at stake:

The ideal behind Facebook’s plan is an honourable one, but its execution is thoroughly self-serving. By acting as the gateway through which potentially billions of users get onto the Internet, Facebook stands to benefit immensely at a tremendous cost to its competitors.

It’s already incredibly hard to challenge Facebook in the social networking space, for several reasons. Many of its 1.2 billion users have invested copious amounts of time cultivating contact networks or uploading photos. These things aren’t easily duplicated or transportable, as even Google has learned with the failure of its Google+ initiative. If a company the size of Google can’t take Facebook on, you know there’s a problem.

Newer, nimbler social networks such as Instagram and WhatsApp, meanwhile, tend to get swallowed up by Facebook before they have a chance to rival its heft. Only Twitter has managed to make a go of it independently, and that’s probably because the two services came up around the same time and Twitter is now too big to acquire.

The addition of potentially billions of more users would further cement Facebook’s unstoppability, which is what makes net neutrality supporters so nervous. A number of Indian companies that initially supported, including travel site Cleartrip, e-commerce provider Flipkart and the Times Group news organization, have since run for the exits as a result.

As the Times Group said in a statement:

“We support net neutrality because it creates a fair, level playing field for all companies – big and small – to produce the best service and offer it to consumers. We will lead the drive towards a neutral Internet, but we need our fellow publishers and content providers to do so as well, so that the playing field continues to be level.”

Zuckerberg disagrees. In a recent newspaper opinion piece, he wrote that Facebook does indeed support net neutrality:

“Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity. Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected.”

The solution is simple. If Zuckerberg really is altruistic and wants to help poor people get onto the Internet, he could easily fund free wireless data without any pre-selected applications and let those people choose which services and sites they want to use on their own.

Some of them might even become Facebook users of their own accord.