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

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

On Thursday revealed a partnership with the Zambian subsidiary of Indian telecoms giant Bharti Airtel. Airtel’s customers there will be able to use the Android(s goog) app – or the 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 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 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(s twtr) 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 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 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.

15 Responses to “Facebook’s unveils free, limited web access — such opportunity, but at what cost?”

  1. Steve Song

    Fighting about zero-rating apps is bikeshedding real access issues in emerging markets. It’s about enabling competition and the real battlegrounds are around open access to fibre and access to spectrum. It’s easy to talk about zero-rating apps as the problem is essentially binary, do it, don’t do it. Enabling real competition in Africa is a more complex problem that deserves more attention, thought, and debate. Full argument at

  2. valdiraristidesmirandam

    Sou presidente fundador de uma Ongue no estado de santa catarina-Brasil…É é muito deficil ,para nos a borocracia imposto pelo governo.

  3. Richard P

    If this is supposed to be a news story, there’s a lot of slanted editorial content here. Two of your Pros contain implied Cons, and your three Cons are all speculative as the first two start with “If” and the third talks about a risk.

    It’s a red herring to drag net neutrality into this article. This is a free service to access limited content. Internet access in the Western countries is paid for by the user and is generally not limited in what you can access.

    How do you know Zuckerberg’s motives are any less altruistic than Wikipedia’s? He might be the next Andrew Carnegie who used his wealth to fund public libraries across the country. If you’re going to question his motives, back it up with some evidence.

    Mr. Meyer, you were called out on an elitist point of view by another poster. I have to agree. You seem to assume that the poor gullible Zambian isn’t capable of making an informed decision on whether it is an acceptable trade off to use this service. I think people in this situation ARE capable of deciding what is in their best interest. Their calculus might not be the same as yours. That doesn’t make them wrong. Or victims.

    • David Meyer

      I think you’re misunderstanding what we do at Gigaom – we report, interpret and analyse the news. I get to analyse this stuff because I’ve covered it for years and closely follow the business models that are involved.

      Regarding the elitism accusation, I completely disagree. For a start, as I said in response to that accusation, I agree that there are big positives to this move. There are also downsides, and to ignore them would be short-sighted.

      Of course the people in this situation can decide what they do and do not want — and if I were in their position, I would almost certainly take up this offer. That doesn’t mean it’s not bad for the open internet, though. Net neutrality is no red herring in this argument — it’s absolutely central.

    • Felipe

      “I think people in this situation ARE capable of deciding what is in their best interest. ”

      You surely don´t live in these countries and haven´t probaly been there. I haven´t been in Zambia, but I happen to live in Brazil and I know that although, sometimes (rarely to be more precise) people are capable fo deciding what´s best for them, the best option is simply not available for them at all, so they have to choose the least terrible one, or even, the one that gets them some other benefit, even if this is a chioice that will harm them in the long run.

      Governments are giving thing to poor people who, of course accepts them, without knowing what´s the price they are paying for it.

  4. Keith Hawn

    yeah that advertising privacy thing is a BIG concern….I’m sure advertisers the world over are already lining up to get their hands on “rich” data about poor Zambians [LMAO]

    • David Meyer

      How so? I acknowledge that there’s a ton of opportunity and advantage here. That doesn’t mean those risks don’t apply in emerging markets just as they do elsewhere, though.

        • Felipe

          I´m sure this is not elitist document. In countries prone to dictatorships like latin america´s ones right now, government will surely find a way (in the long run of course) to use this kind of benefit as an oddly constrained “benefit”, something that looks like a benefit smells like free and at the end of the day is completely the opposite.

          Like Hitler did earlier, Lula, Dilma, Evo Morales, Chavez, Kirchner, Maduro, all come to power under democratic rules, trhough the vote, and eventhough, they can change everything to a dictatorship state, in a manner that looks like democratic. This is going on right now on the countries run by these people mentioned above.

          In Brazil, you have the example of the Internet regulation that was approved before elections and right now, many, many pages in facebook opposing the government, are being reported by the virtual army of the Labor´s party sistematically and being shut off by Facebook.

          Believe me, although the free internet seems like a good thing, and at the bottom of the heart of their creators, it really is, on under developed countries where they are mostly demanded, there will be a tweek that will transform it competelly. It´s a pity, but it´s for real.

  5. tommariner

    Aha — another business model to monetize Internet access. I guess that Google fiber would eventually go in that direction, but probably not so blatantly.

    Are we really entering an age where we treat anything we read on the Net as what we hear from politicians — figure it is slanted to achieve their aims and therefore not trusted? Hey, we had a wonderful few decades where much content was unbiased — now not only can evil doers get their deeds shielded (the EU “forget me” rule), but now but we will not be able to trust good comments on everything from tablet computers to political leaders.

    We have created our own “1984” where everything we see and hear is controlled. You didn’t think our current crop of no-talent leaders could resist shaping the information that keeps them in power did you?

    • elvis nixon

      You are exactly correct about 1984. It is not clear as to what “Big Brother” is protecting, (and that role shifts), only that the unseen “they” have it and you don’t…