Should we 'unlike' Facebook's for emerging markets?

In May 2015, Mark Zuckerberg’s was compelled to release a ‘myth buster’ in response to growing media attention and accusations of the organisation being a backdoor violation of net neutrality. The statement clearly reflects the growing frustration within and is an attempt to put to bed the idea that this is just another example of large businesses taking advantage of emerging markets. is in its own words, “a Facebook-led initiative bringing together technology leaders, non-profits and local communities to connect the two thirds of the world that doesn't have Internet access.” However, it has raised concerns because some see the provision of free basic services being against the spirit of net neutrality where all data and services are treated equally.

So is it an altruistic venture? Probably not. Is it trying to take over the world? Probably not. So at what point do we stop being cynical? Is the criticism fair and based on real concerns of local people and businesses or is it out of context, based on the Ivory Tower rants of a few prosecco socialists in countries where it is never going to be an issue?

Essentially it comes down to trust and this is where it falls over, or at least gets a bit fuzzy. We are right to be cynical. Why should we trust big businesses? What have large businesses such as Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung done to earn trust on an ethical level? Fundamentally they don’t have to – it’s not why they exist.



Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales recently said in an interview with IDG Connect that he thought criticism of his Wikipedia Zero venture in Africa was misplaced and although net neutrality is important, it is only one of many important issues with internet access.

Wales though admits that Zero has a limited shelf life and that it’s only circumventing net neutrality to enable kids to get access to information for free, especially as these kids don’t have any books in the library. So is this right? Of course it is. The key difference here though is that Wales is not trying to make any direct money out of Wikipedia. It doesn’t have shareholders looking at stock prices. We trust Wales and Wikipedia not to put ads on the site – don’t we? Can we?

Zuckerberg’s approach has, of course, been different. He’s running a business and has revenues to make and shareholders to please. Although on the myth buster page it says there are no ads on Facebook on the service, we all know this could just be about branding. Yes, let’s help the poor people get online and it will be good for our brand in the long term - that sort of thing.

Whether this is true or not, it’s how it looks and that’s where the trust thing comes in. We know how it works. Brands need to market themselves directly and indirectly and they also like to tick a few corporate social responsibility boxes too. So does this ultimately make it a bad thing or is it just that it’s been marketed wrong?

The best way to look at this is by gauging local reaction. India for one has been very vocal. Net neutrality has already been ‘sold’ to the country via the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which in March released a consultation paper asking people for comments – more than a million of which have now replied in favour of net neutrality. On the back of this there have been numerous blogs and comments criticising such as the Aam Aadmi Party, which went as far as saying that “if some websites or applications or services are offered free or at faster speeds, the balance tips towards established players with deeper pockets which kills the innovative young start-ups that will emanate from this [the Indian] ecosystem.”

It’s a typical criticism. Whether likes it or not, it has misjudged the mood.

Fighting talk

Zuckerberg tried to address the criticisms in April when he wrote an article for the Hindustan Times and then in May when he released a video announcing plans to open up the initiative to third-party developers.

“Arguments about net neutrality shouldn't be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity,” wrote Zuckerberg. “Eliminating programmes that bring more people online won't increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected.”

We get that but what is surprising is that Zuckerberg continues not to see the concerns. Can or can it not (whether intentionally or not) be construed as a marketing tool for the next billion internet users? On that score the Aam Aadmi Party’s concerns stand. If it can be construed as a marketing tool then surely it is undermining local efforts to create start-up ecosystems and perhaps develop affordable services that locals will actually need and use?

Zuckerberg should have seen this coming. Business initiatives dressed up as charities look wrong. The clothes don’t fit regardless of how sincere those businesses intend to be. Perhaps the initiative should have been clearer from the start? Maybe it should have already been open for third-party developers? Maybe it should not have had any business partners with their brand names emblazoned across the site? Maybe it shouldn’t have been a “Facebook-led initiative”?

I don’t think anyone would really argue with the principle of helping people to get online. And I don’t think Zuckerberg is trying to be underhand here. When it comes down to it, he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t have to do anything. But what people want, regardless of how much money they have and which data plans they can afford, is the same internet as everyone else. That’s the challenge. Do we trust to solve it?

I think we have to look elsewhere, to UN initiatives, as an Internet Society blog suggests, putting pressure on local telecoms providers, using political influence to inform policy. Should be part of that mix? Who are we to deny anyone the opportunity to access the internet for free? But in his haste to get people online, who is Zuckerberg to decide what they see?  


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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