Facebook recently proposed a plan offering free, stripped down Internet to Indian citizens, specif- ically targeted at the very poor. The plan, called “Free Basics,” is active in over 30 countries and gives smartphone users free usage of the weather and news apps along with Facebook, but charges users for other websites, notably competing social media sites.
The Indian government struck down the plan on the grounds that it restricted freedom on the web through discriminatory pricing, the practice of incentivizing the usage of specific websites while financially penalizing use of others. Speculators were quick to offer opinions on the exchange, calling the proposal “a digital land grab” and labeling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a modern day colonizer.
The colonist image even reso- nated within the corporation as Facebook board director Marc Andreessen referenced on Twitter: “Anti-colonialism has been eco- nomically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”
Andreessen apologized for his statement, but after the colonist comparison has been drawn it is difficult to put it out of your mind. Zuckerberg even made it a moral appeal, asking if on principle we should deny internet or “connect the fisherman in India now? Or do we shut them out and tell them they have to wait until they afford to pay for it themselves?”
By framing the incentive as driv- en by a pressing ethical dilemma, Zuckerberg tried to make it a per- sonal issue. In this light, the pro- posed action seems like a positive sentiment. Why should we deny those with next to nothing what is on the table, even if it is watered down and water-marked? This allure is what makes the deal so dangerous. The short-term boon is the long-term pitfall.
Few would likely expect a $245 billion corporation like Facebook to do charity purely for the sake of
bettering mankind, but many seem willing to overlook the motivation for the sake of the outcome.
Sure, we don’t expect Zuckerberg to be truly concerned with the fish- erman lacking Internet just as much as we do not expect the CEO of McDonald’s to be truly concerned with the impoverished family that cannot afford healthier food. It is a polite lie that makes business practices simpler. What makes the “Free Basics” case so troublesome is that the restrictions outweigh the benefits.
If India were to have accepted the deal, it would have been an easy short-term victory. Those cur- rently incapable of affording inter- net service are likely not primarily concerned with predatory pricing or internet freedom, but rather how they can win this increasingly vital privilege. These are the people we should be working to provide with Internet, but it should not be on Facebook’s terms.
The Internet is still a relatively new and rapidly changing frontier. Free and open access maintains the integrity of content available on Internet. Facebook is not trying to give away Internet service as much as they are attempting to sell them- selves to and ingratiate themselves with as many people as possible.
If we are going to ensure free- dom of the Internet for years to come, then we have to learn how to resist the immediate opportunities, as enticing as they may be. Once we begin to surrender our principles for corporate interests it becomes more and more difficult to stop the process.
Accessible Internet for all is a tantalizing idea, and it will hope- fully be possible in the future, but if we allow entrenched powers to control the spread of the Internet it will become a resource controlled by corporations instead of one that is free for individuals.