What began as an innovation challenge for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to bring free Internet to developing nations has quickly garnered heated opposition amidst a net neutrality debate.
On Monday, Zuckerberg released a personal appeal to the Times of India calling on India to “choose facts over fiction” following the Telecom Regulator Authority of India’s (TRAI) directive to put the Free Basics service on hold pending compliance concerns.
Internet activists concerned about the digital divide have been working for decades to promote laws and policies that see to lower classes gaining access to the Internet in developing nations.
Zuckerberg joined Internet activists in 2013 with his launch of Internet.org to address the digital divide in developing nations “to share the Internet’s knowledge and inspiration with the world” and overcome “issues of accessibility, affordability and awareness”.
Good intentions aside however, net neutrality activists have been quick to warn Zuckerberg to consider the consequences of creating a separate Internet by hand selecting Internet.org partners, which discriminate against companies that are not on the list.
Following heated criticism, Zuckerberg renamed its Internet.org initiative, now called ‘Free Basics’, which provides people with access to basic websites for free.
Basically, now any website operator can submit a site for inclusion to Free Basics pending that it meets the technical specifications of Internet.org’s guidelines.
Sound a little complicated?
Net neutrality advocates agreed that compliance with the guidelines were subject to a number of vulnerabilities. EFF argued, for one, that most inexpensive phones used by the majority in the third world do not support proxying HTTPS connections. Though Zuckerberg has now addressed these concerns by adding support for end-to-end encryption to services that only run on HTTP, this is still heavily reliant on the Facebook platform as Internet gatekeepers for free access and security to parts of the whole Internet.
So is Zuckerberg’s ‘Free Basics’ platform against net neutrality?
Some net neutrality advocates argue that with a tonne of people in the third world already believing Facebook to be the Internet, Zuckerberg’s attempts at replicating his own great firewall of China is verging on grandiosity. There is widespread agreement that the complete omission of the ‘deep web’ for users does limit and shape free thought to some extent through services offered that must meet the Internet.org specifications.
But really, are we underestimating those in the third world to be capable of understanding that what they see on Free Basics are not the only options out there available? After all, they are still human beings capable of filtering out information and free to move on to the whole Internet given the resources to do so.
Amidst criticism, Zuckerberg defends Free Basics saying that the platform works basically as a freemium introductory offer to the Internet for those that are not already familiar with the Internet – as a “really, really thin layer” of service before people move on to the whole Internet.
If Zuckerberg were to make clear that his Free Basics service is not the whole Internet to those less educated, then even as an Internet freedom advocate in the first world, I would wholeheartedly agree that some Internet is better than none in context.
And for those arguing for the sake of arguing supposedly in support of net neutrality, the privileged middle class clearly do not understand the struggles of poorer nations. Where food, shelter, education and healthcare are not taken for granted, the Internet is not a priority, much less a human right.
At least Zuckerberg has made good intentions to put his fortune to use for those less fortunate, which speaks more than say the likes of the upper middle class fuelling the net neutrality debate in India.