It’s safe to say that Facebook‘s efforts to launch an internet offering have not followed an entirely smooth trajectory. Since 2013, the company has been working with Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm to bring affordable access to internet services in less developed countries.
The project, founded as Internet.org, has now reached 37 countries in Africa, Asia and South America, with several other countries slated to receive access.
However, Internet.org – with its user app now rebranded as Free Basics – has hit a roadblock in India, where campaigners are firmly resisting what is seen as an attack on net neutrality.
The debate focuses on the choice of apps and websites that the service offers as free, and primarily whether Facebook should be making any such choice at all.
The two opposing camps on this debate seem to be talking at crossed purposes much of the time. In a May letter signed by bodies such as European Digital Rights and Access, concerns were raised over zero rating, which means that certain services or applications are free to use without a data plan or that traffic on those sites does not count towards data caps.
"This practice is inherently discriminatory — which is why it has been banned or restricted in countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Chile."
In Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s op-ed for the Economic Times, he offers no rebuttal to the zero rating argument, but accuses critics of prioritising politics over philanthropy.
"Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims – even if that means leaving behind a billion people. Instead of recognizing the fact that Free Basics is opening up the whole internet, they continue to claim – falsely – that this will make the internet more like a walled garden.
"Instead of welcoming Free Basics as an open platform that will partner with any telco, and allows any developer to offer services to people for free, they claim – falsely – that this will give people less choice. Instead of recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim – falsely – the exact opposite."
It is certainly true that Zuckerberg fails to address the specific concerns over net neutrality in his article. The free access to Facebook makes it inherently more likely that it will be used instead of an alternative social network that might require paying for data. The same goes for the content partners that use the platform.
However, Zuckerberg does raise the important point that this may be the only viable internet solution available to some people. The dilemma, then, is about the greater good: is expanding internet access in a country with only 30 percent coverage worth violating net neutrality?
The reality is that providing internet access is expensive and the cost has to be borne by somebody. However, various alternatives to the Free Basics model have been suggested.
Most solutions would have to come down to advertising. One alternative that has been proposed is where a user views an advert and then receives a certain data allowance. This model is being used extensively with online video content, with the cost burden being shifted from the user on to the advertiser.
Firefox is working with Telenor Group’s Grameenphone in Bangladesh, where users can get 20 MB of data per day after viewing an advertisement.
Another option might be tagging the internet services as a freebie onto another purchase. The software company has also worked with Orange in Africa to package free internet with its cheap smartphones.
Another possibility might be Google’s initiative. In September, CEO Sundar Pichai announced the "largest public wi-fi project in India" in a blog post.
Google will be rolling out wi-fi across train stations in India, providing free access to commuters. Apparently, the first 100 stations online will provide access to over 10 million people.
Pichai adds that the "service will be free to start" but explains that the long-term goal is "to make it self-sustainable to allow for expansion to more stations and other places, with RailTel and more partners, in the future."
Free now, but paid for later: again, there doesn’t seem to be any way out of the ‘who pays?’ question. The advertising-driven models, meanwhile, will take time and investment to develop to the stage of Free Basics.
For the time being, then, Free Basics may remain the only game in town for providing such cheap, pervasive access.