India Banned Facebook's Free Internet: Why You Should Care
Read straight, the news coming out of India yesterday hardly sounds revelatory. In fact, it sounds boring: on February 8th, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) rejected Facebook’s Free Basics internet model, which purports to allow basic access to the Internet, but in actuality allows access to little more than Facebook and its partners.
At center stage is the concept of net neutrality, a democratization of the internet whereby all websites and services are available equally. Basically, it’s the Internet as you already know it; Netflix loads at the same speed as your long-abandoned Myspace profile. Without net neutrality, internet providers can set premiums for certain websites and services, compounding fees and spoiling the equal footing the internet offers. India’s landmark decision reaffirms the importance of net neutrality, giving a big ol’ middle finger to corporate interests. Here are three reasons this decision is so globally significant.
Net neutrality is being championed on a global scale
This story has been unfolding since mid-2013, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg teamed up with six other companies to launch Internet.org, a program that attempts to give as-yet-unconnected pockets of the globe free access to the internet. Included in this program was Free Basics, a phone app that would work with regional mobile carriers in order to bring free data to some of the world’s poorest regions. Internet.org, which has since launched in 17 countries including Guatemala, Zambia, and Bangladesh, was pitched by Zuckerberg as a philanthropic venture that’d lend a “voice to the voiceless in our society,” and connect people culturally on a small and large scale.
There were some roadblocks in the way of Zuckerberg’s dream, namely that Internet.org only offers free access to Facebook and its affiliates—making it neither a true representation of the internet, nor an honest non-profit venture (as the .org domain implies). As a result, there has been a major pushback against Internet.org from internet activists. Does this matter, in the long run? Zuckerberg argued that any internet, even a Facebook-syndicated version of the internet, would be an immediate boon to the people. Connectivity would allow for more avenues of conversation, exchange, and emergency response. In an op-ed for Forbes, writer Tim Worstall echoed those opinions, saying that “the reduction of poverty” was a more important goal than net neutrality. Certainly, in the poorest areas of the world, net neutrality is not an issue that even registers.
But there’d also be some negatives to consider. Internet.org cleverly misrepresents the internet and Facebook as interchangable concepts. That might be one of the reasons why a growing number of people surveyed in countries with Internet.org say that while they do not use the internet, they do use Facebook. To them, Facebook isn’t equivalent to the internet, it’s greater than the internet. This misunderstanding not only limits the openness of the internet, it also shows how Facebook’s corporate interests could supersede any philanthropic goals. Wanna read articles about the Free Basics controversy in an area that hosts Free Basics? Sorry bud, you’ll have to buy internet for that.
Global internet isn’t so much a question of “when” as it is a question of “how.” If free, open-source internet is a decade—even two decades—away, perhaps it’s worth waiting for the more humanitarian option instead of selling out our morals for immediacy. Among activists, there’s a sense that once the internet gets privatized, with users getting access to some websites and having to pay extra for others, there’s no going back.
It might be too late for us here in the United States. The FCC argues that the internet, a utility, should be freed from corporate interests, whereas cable providers and their lobbyists on the Hill argue that privatization of the internet would reduce costs, increase competition, and—wait for it—prevent children from pornographers. Since 2011, bills that would eliminate net neutrality have appeared annually in Congress under titles like “Protect Children from Internet Pornographers Act,” “Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act,” and the “Stop Online Piracy Act.” Despite their catchy titles, they’ve been narrowly defeated after activists caused an uproar. And each year, congressmen and women take a break from their vacation days in order to draft up another iteration of the bill. Last year, Congress’s “never say die” attitude paid off, when the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act successfully passed both the House and Senate, despite being full of privacy and net neutrality concerns. The act was signed into law last December. You’ve got to appreciate the lobbyists’ moxie, at the very least.
Facebook Hasn’t Proven Themselves to Be Trustworthy In the Past
No, I’m not talking about Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. If Facebook is able to beat competitors like Google (whose Project Loon is similar in its ambition) in connecting untapped users to the internet—over a billion of whom live in India—the company can greatly influence users views of Facebook. This is a company that banks off of your information. Are you sharing photos? Your birthday? Clicking on articles linked through Facebook? All that information is recorded, graphed, and shipped off to advertisers. If Facebook successfully infiltrates the rest of the world, and gets those who are left unconnected into their system, that’s just more money in their pockets.
The controversies surrounding Facebook are worse than that, though. Much worse. In 2014, Facebook engineers admitted that they’d manipulated the news feed of half a million of its user base, selectively showing them a majority of either positive or negative posts in order to see how it impacted their emotions. Lead researcher Adam Kramer admitted, “In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.” So Facebook’s occasionally gets a God complex–that doesn’t necessarily mean that their social experimentations would bleed over into the benevolence of their worldwide programs. Right?
Facebook has said that, thanks to their partnerships, their Free Basics program will, at least for now, be ad-free. What hasn’t been ad-free, however, is Facebook’s promotion of Free Basics across India. Facebook spent millions on billboards in India, urging citizens to “Support a Connected India,” in the name of “digital equality.” Zuckerberg even bought an op-ed in Times of India, arguing that no one could reasonably be against worldwide connectivity. The problem with the argument is that no one is against connectivity, instead, they’re against corrupted, privatized connectivity.
Zuckerberg Misread India
There’s a critical cultural aspect to this that’s been missed by a lot of Western media covering this story. India gained its independence from the United Kingdom less than 70 years ago, some 200 years after the British wrested control from India through military strong-arming. In the past decade, as India has emerged as a global power, pushback against Western corporate interests has continued. In 2014, Indian officials ordered Coca-Cola to abandon its factory in Mehdiganj, citing its overwhelming waste of clean, drinking water in an impoverished area. In this politically-active climate, Indian activists reaction to Facebook’s program–a program that was accepted much more quietly in other countries–is more understandable.
Zuckerberg made a mistake when he made himself the face of Internet.org, touring worldwide to give speeches and meet with officials. Given their history, many Indians are justifiably suspicious of any claims of white philanthropy. Historically, Carnegie, Jobs, and Ford are figures as controversial as they are influential. That explains why activists used charged terms to denounce Free Basics, calling it “digital apartheid,” and a “walled garden” system. An excellent feature by Lauren Smiley on Backchannel focuses on the Indian people affected by the program, from the consumers to the activists and politicians. In it, activist Kiran Jonnalagadda is frank in his assessment of Facebook’s marketing. “Indians don’t trust whitewash advertising,” he says. “We have history of tainted companies trying to fix their image with ads.”
Compounded with Facebook’s ignoble past, and Internet.org’s anti-consumerist policies, Free Basic’s failure in India seems less like a loss for a Facebook as much as it is a win for activists in India. Hopefully, this move will show tech-innovators that users–in the US, in India, in Ghana–are sick of being guinea pigs. The utility of the internet is a worthwhile goal, but not if it comes at the expense of its integrity.
Stay tuned to Milk for more hacktivism.
Images via 20th Century Fox, LA Times, Reuters, Al-Jazeera.