Nothing Is Free, Not Even Facebook Free Basics
Excellent summary by Om Malik for what’s wrong with Facebook’s project for offering free Internet connection to its own site and some other selected sites. Facebook rebranded the project in some countries from Internet.org to Facebook Free Basics. India (and other countries) rejected the proposal. India’s rejection is the biggest blow to the project because it’s probably the largest target market.
In my view, Facebook’s project is a cynical ploy to grow its user base in developing markets. As people with Internet connection are all on Facebook, how does Facebook reach people without Internet connection? It offers them Internet connection.
This might seem very nice at face value, but it’s not. Om’s article explains some of the reasons why:
I disagree with two points:
- Internet.org isn't about the internet, so Facebook should stop calling it as such and call it what it is: Facebook Free (with strings attached). To call it Internet.org is actually the first sin of this whole debacle.
- Facebook Free Basics isn't a charity. People will pay for it with their data. It is a way for Facebook to gather more attention and sell services and advertising to those who get Facebook’s Free Basics.
Maybe I'm suspicious because my family has told me their personal story of the British Raj or maybe because I have read books that over and again detail how a commercial spearhead (The East India Company) came bearing gifts and then became a symbol of British imperialism. Regardless, I am suspicious of any for-profit company arguing its good intentions and its free gifts. Nothing — and I do mean nothing — in this life is free. You always pay a price.
In a more draconian scenario, it isn't hard to imagine Facebook helping sway the outcome of elections. In the U.S., election-spending and Facebook are a potent mix, as we are made aware every day. In emerging economies, where money has an outsize influence on election results, can Facebook stand up and say no to dollars? Can it say no to money — anyone's money, for that matter — if its overall growth starts to stall?
Up until then, from my perspective, Free Basics/Internet.org is all about advertising and making money. Today and tomorrow, Facebook will make decisions based on how it makes or will make money. That is what for-profit corporations do.
In novels and movies, there’s sometimes a plot for “making a deal with the devil”. In real life, there’s no such thing, but the idea is still valid. Not the idea of making a deal with someone evil, but making a deal to get something you want so bad, in exchange for something you don’t think is very important, but turns out that you need even more. Building the infrastructure for Internet service maybe costly, but it’s far cheaper than the attention and opinion forming of millions of people.
If Facebook really cares about people and wants to help bring them to the Internet, it can just take the millions of dollars it’s spending on lobbying governments and advertising for the Free Basics project and donate that money to build Internet infrastructure for those people. It’s really easy, if you really just want to help.