Facebook’s Internet.org unveils free, limited web access — such opportunity, but at what cost?

Connected Africa

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said back in February that he wanted to make basic internet access free in emerging markets, through the Internet.org initiative. Well here we go: Internet.org just introduced an app that will act as a limited portal to the internet, and it’s rolling out first in Zambia.

On Thursday Internet.org revealed a partnership with the Zambian subsidiary of Indian telecoms giant Bharti Airtel. Airtel’s customers there will be able to use the Internet.org Android app – or the Internet.org website, or the Facebook for Android app – to access a set of services at zero cost. Facebook and Messenger are in there of course, as are Wikipedia, AccuWeather, Google Search, and a selection of local services such as jobs portals, the women’s rights app WRAPP, and a basic library of Zambian laws.

According to a statement by Internet.org product management director Guy Rosen:

“Over 85% of the world’s population lives in areas with existing cellular coverage, yet only about 30% of the total population accesses the internet. Affordability and awareness are significant barriers to internet adoption for many and today we are introducing the Internet.org app to make the internet accessible to more people by providing a set of free basic services. With this app, people can browse a set of useful health, employment and local information services without data charges. By providing free basic services via the app, we hope to bring more people online and help them discover valuable services they might not have otherwise.”

This is essentially an expansion of the existing Facebook Zero program, through which Facebook strikes deals with carriers in emerging markets (including Airtel) to offer the social network for free. Twitter and Google do the same, as does Wikipedia, though the latter is at least doing it for purely altruistic reasons.

The problem with these “zero-rating” deals is … well, I’ve laid out this argument before and I no doubt will again, but seeing as the release of this app feels like a watershed of sorts, let’s list the pros and cons in handy bullet-point form:

  • PRO: They provide access to those who previously lacked it.
  • PRO: They give carriers a way to show people what the internet does and then sell them up to paid data services (which is why the carriers aren’t even charging Internet.org for carrying its data.)
  • PRO: They give included web services the growth Wall Street craves.
  • CON: If users don’t pay up to exit the walled garden (and for many, why would they?) then it stymies any rival web service, by making it harder for people to find them, let alone use them. In other words, zero-rating entrenches powerful monopolies, hurts competition and potentially slows down innovation.
  • CON: If your web experience is mediated through a monolithic portal, that undermines privacy — everything you do and look at is funnelled through one profiling gate, with the results going to advertisers and potentially spies.
  • CON: There’s an immense risk to free speech. Particularly in more authoritarian countries – and there are quite a few in emerging markets – state censors must love the idea of everything passing through one portal. It makes their job so much simpler.

Of course, those cons sound terribly melodramatic when you’re talking about people joining the global internet for the first time. That’s a noble goal – apart from the new educational and economic opportunities for so many people, just think of the rebalancing and diversification of what has until now been a relatively rich person’s tool! Also, there is at least a reasonable range of services in the Internet.org app. This program will probably do a lot of good.

Just keep an eye on how this plays out. There’s a reason Chile has banned such practices, and new net neutrality legislation in Europe (almost but not quite yet passed) would do the same. Meanwhile, in the U.S., carriers are also starting to offer service-specific plans at temptingly low prices — this isn’t just an issue for new internet users in emerging markets.

If the idea of net neutrality previously seemed abstract, welcome to the reality of the world without it – for better and for worse. In the battle for the soul of the internet, these bargains may prove Faustian.

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