Internet for the poor: Is a taste better than nothing?

October 26, 2015
facebook free basics

By Reem AlMasri
Translated By Hisham Theinat

The Internet will fall from the sky.

On October the 5th, Facebook (in partnership with the French-based satellite provider, Eutelsat) announced its plans to use satellites to deliver the Internet to poorer regions and villages in 14 Sub-Saharan African countries by mid 2016. The company, which began as a social platform is now working to be an Internet provider through its Internet.org project launched in 2013 in collaboration with companies such as Samsung, Ericsson and Qualcomm. Facebook began implementing its project in 2014 through telecom companies’ cell towers providing Internet to 4.5 million people in Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Colombia and India, however, the company now aspires to connect the four more billion people left by using different technological means.

All you have to do is to dowload Facebook’s free basics application – or what used to be called Internet.org – on your smartphone to access Facebook and other selected websites. The idea is for the provider to bear the cost of accessing the Internet rather than the end user.

Facebook seeks to place itself at the forefront of charity work and social responsibility.  In his address to the 70th annual U.N. General Assembly session in September of this year, Mark Zuckerberg called on governments to recognize Internet access as a basic human right because “no one should have to choose between access to the Internet or food or medicine.” He also announced that his company will be working with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide Internet access in UN refugee camps.

For a global commercial company like Facebook to provide these huge numbers of people with free Internet when it’s originally a social networking company, may herald a time when capitalism meets the spirit of poverty alleviation. This is not exclusive to Facebook, as Google is also developing project Loon which is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space to connect people in rural areas with the project is still being piloted in New Zealand and Australia.

But the captivating «everybody wins» formula soon vanishes when grasping the details of these projects that will soon the change the Internet power balance as we know it.

The web reduced to Facebook

The company markets its project as a way of connecting millions of the poor around the world. What it fails to mention is that the Internet that it will provide will be the Internet as exactly how Facebook wants it, and not as it should be. Facebook’s free application allows access only to selected websites, and companies –which include Facebook, of course – that have been contracted to provide their services using Internet.org‘s platform and application, thus, reducing the Internet experience with all its richness, decentralization and possibilities to provide spaces for productive projects, into a few websites within the borders of the application. “It is always better to have some access to the Internet than none at all”, says Zuckerberg. But that would be like a telecommunication company providing a house with a free-of-cost landline through which you can call few numbers only, in a time when everyone is using cell phones, and label this project as charitable!

In India, civil society organisations rejected the partnerships between Facebook and telecom companies to provide users with free bundles of websites via Facebook application; many of the Indian websites even withdrew from the bundles. These free services are called Zero Rating Services which cost the end user nothing, hence, messing with the Net Neutrality principle. These services may divide the Internet into two lanes, one of which is a fast connection for the websites that are subscribed to this service, and the other is a slow connection for the websites which can’t afford to subscribe for a quicker reach. Violating the principles of network neutrality and widening the gap between those who have access to the full Internet and those who don’t, monitoring data, and users’ privacy were some of the biggest concerns voiced by 70 advocacy groups in a open letter sent to Zuckerberg, who, afterwards, had to change the name of the application from Internet.org to Free basics.

Facebook wants to become the Internet, despite the fact that it was the web’s characteristics of decentralization and diversity of entities (from service providers and platforms) that paved the way for such a website to come into sight in the first place. For the company, there’s nothing wrong with service providers overlapping with content producers to bridge the gap between those who can access and those who can’t. But in reality, Facebook will provide users with the absolute minimum of what’s required to get a taste of the Internet, but not enough to compete with it. Will Facebook give an emerging competitor website from a region it’s providing Internet with, say Guinea, an equal opportunity on its web? The same opportunities that the company acquired in 2007 which enabled it to emerge when the network was more decentralized?

Profit under the guise of charity work

On Facebook, your personal information as a user is the biggest asset to the company and the product it sells to advertisers on its site. The company uses complex algorithms to classify your personality, reading, sleeping and eating preferences and beliefs to predict your purchasing decisions later. Imagine the amount of information that will be collected by Facebook when millions of users in these communities start using the free application for communication, which will be used to increase the scope of its promotion advertising, only because it will enable them to communicate- communicate only- as the free service will not give them access to articles or videos that are shared on the site for example.

This leads us to “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” idea which C. K. Prahalad succeeded in convincing multinational corporations of.  The theory claims that if companies sold goods and offering services to individuals and families that earn less than two dollars a day, they would not only profit immensely, but would also raise the standard of living of its clients at the bottom of the pyramid. This idea was to the liking of most big companies after discovering the allure of the lower-class market that’s based on the principle of lower quality, less profit but greater density. In light of the growing possibilities offered by the network for the development of societies, and the transfer of most services to it, the “some access to the Internet” service will not fill the gap between the have and have-nots, instead, it will only serve as changing the gap’s sides to those who have full access to the real Internet and those who have very little access of selected Internet.

In a research produced by Helani Galpaya on telephone users at the “bottom of pyramid” in Indonesia, results suggest that Zero Rating Services offered by these companies failed to introduce poor users to the web’s capabilities. When asked questions about the Internet, most of the respondents said they didn’t use it. But when asked about Facebook, most of them said they used it often.

Satellites with military mentality

Internet will not reach the less-fortunate regions through underground cables, but  via «HTS Ka Band» radiation technology which will be transmitted through satellites covering a large area of the sub-Saharan Africa regions. Facebook hired part of the coverage from the satellite AMOS-6 owned by the Israeli company Spacecom which is involved in launching satellites providing Internet services. It should be noted that SpaceCom’s tender for building the AMOS-6 satellite was awarded in 2012 to the Israeli Aerospace Industries, which is one of the most important manufacturer of the Israeli Ministry of Defence arsenal. Back then, Israeli experts stated that if a non-Israeli company won the bid and build the satellite AMOS-6 in the required orbit (which covers the entire Middle East), it could impact Israel’s national security.

A lot of the companies that build satellites come from defense and security backgrounds. In addition to satellites, Facebook is investing in building drones for Internet broadcasting, and so is Google. Facebook has already acquired in 2014 the British company Ascenta that specializes in building these drones. The plan is to launch the first drone named Aquilla by the end of this year which will be able to fly at altitudes of 60 to 90 thousand feet and run on solar power for three months. When looking at the backgrounds of employees at Ascenta, we will find for example that the founder of the company Andrew Cox was a key member of a British defense company, and Nigel Gifford has a military background and was deployed to many remote areas.

Conclusion

In announcing the use of satellites early this month, Facebook named fourteen States in sub-Saharan Africa to deliver its Internet.org project to, but the longer term goal is the four more billion of non Internet users in the world, whom a big chunk of live in the Arab region. Facebook and other companies began to conclude Zero Rating deals, as in the partnership concluded between Umniah, Facebook, Whatsapp, Skype and Opera for one JD a month. There is no denying that the right of Internet access has become similar to the right to water and electricity and is a right which governments must secure for all its citizens.

If governments could not provide it, they may make use of the private sector but with conditions that ensure full access to the web as it is, without restrictions, especially when the sites that subscribe to the bundles are profiting just by expanding connectivity to their sites. Telecommunications regulatory authorities must also regulate Zero Rating Services in a way that ensures competitiveness and the bottom of pyramid users’ ability to discover the possibilities that the network offers outside of the boundaries set by free bundles’ applications.