Facebook's free internet: Fighting a losing battle?

Though it has noble intentions, Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org project (also known as Facebook Free Basics) has always struggled with public perception. And this week, the World Bank became the latest, and probably most high profile critic of Mark Zuckerberg’s pet project.

Why is there a history of distrust of this project?

Upon its launch in 2013, Zuckerberg’s plan to bring free internet services to billions of people in emerging markets was labelled by many as a way to merely expand Facebook into new markets after reaching saturation point in the Western world.

Zuckerberg has spoken at the UN, taken out editorials in papers, and dismissed claims about his idea infringing on upon net neutrality and privacy. But that hasn’t stopped the critics.

While it’s easy to say any internet access is better than none, many argue the “walled garden” approach is wrong and people shouldn’t be charged for trying to access the whole of the World Wide Web if they so desire, and have to give up their privacy and security in the process. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been critical, as has a number of digital rights groups and Tim Berners-Lee thinks people should “just say no” to the scheme.

The ever-expanding service has been rolled out to over 30 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America, offering free access to the likes of Wikipedia, weather, news, and of course, Facebook, but it’s starting to meet increasing resistance. In April last year, several Indian startups pulled out of the scheme on the grounds of net neutrality, as did one Indonesian telco.

The fightback has failed to quieten down since. Over the last month, the service has been (at least temporarily) shut down in India and Egypt – both prompting the organisation to state its “disappointment” with the situation.

What did the World Bank have to say?

“The recent trend to develop services in which some basic content can be accessed free of data charges (such as Facebook’s Free Basics or Internet.org),” reads the new report, “while other content is subject to data charges, would appear to be the antithesis of net neutrality and a distortion of markets.”

That’s pretty damning, but unlikely to ruffle the organisation’s feathers. Even if the critics only get louder (and more governments start saying no), Facebook is unlikely to stop or slow down its ambitions.


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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