I have been monitoring the ongoing back-and-forth around Internet.org, the walled-gardens of zero-rated services, and how net neutrality affects the future of the Internet around the world.
It’s pretty fascinating and confusing at the same time – soliciting conversation among groups and people who wouldn’t normally interact, and with surprises about who shakes out on which side.
The Issue at Stake
In short, the quandary is this: Mark Zuckerberg via his Internet.org has been working with cellphone carriers around the world to offer a suite of data services to those carrier’s customers at no cost to the customer themselves (the so-called ‘zero-rated’ services).
The price tag for the data is picked up by Internet.org, the carrier has a larger customer base at no cost, and new customers have access to ‘Free Basics’ services including Facebook and Wikipedia among others. Everyone wins, right?
At issue is that these services have been perceived as promoting a second-class data network – a poor people’s Internet.
Critics say that it violates the principles of Net Neutrality which fosters an open and openly-connected platform, to say nothing of the eventual market ties to the need for Facebook itself to get more and more users onto its platform from the last untapped market in the world.
It has all the makings of a pretty interesting debate. So let’s have it.
Actually I’m going to try and keep this short. Others have piped in on this in much greater depth and with more background than I could offer.
For probably the most condensed ethical summary to the debate itself, I’d start with Kentaro Toyama’s piece in the Atlantic back in December.
The Events in India
If you want to go to the ‘beginning’ (I know this isn’t the beginning, but hey), then Lev Grossman’s Time Article ‘Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s Plan to Wire the World’ gives the most comprehensive inside look at things were starting out. My favorite line:
There are still people here on God’s green earth who can conduct their social lives without being marketed to. Can’t we for God’s sake leave them alone?
Then things really picked up when in December 2015, India’s telecom regulatory body asked the Indian cellphone carrier (Reliance Communications) to stop hosting the service.
Immediately after, Zuckerberg pens an op-ed piece defending the program – and then well that started a bunch of back and forth.
We began to see articles like: ‘Facebook is misleading Indians with its full-page ads about Free Basics’, ‘“Stupidity wrapped in ignorance” underlies Facebook’s Free Basics program’, ‘Disconnect: Mark Zuckerberg is trying to hoodwink India’, and ‘Mark Zuckerberg can’t believe India isn’t grateful for Facebook’s free internet - Quartz’.
And of course it didn’t stop there – we also saw related stories occur in Egypt and Chile, and then a resurgence (as they had already happened) of all the examples of nations publicly asserting resistance to zero-rated services on the grounds of infringing on the principles of net neutrality.
Being Proactive about the Future
This actually turns out to be a thorny discussion topic whenever I’ve brought up it, and folks who are sitting in one camp or the other really have a tough time seeing the other side.
I include myself, as I feel squarely caught in the middle. And not in a Zen-like because-I’m-at-peace sort of way, but because I feel like I go back and forth on this from one day to the next. My position as a bureaucrat in a development agency makes me appreciate the action of bringing the unconnected online and simply starting somewhere with what we have.
On the other hand, the policy implications are vast, and could have massive unforeseen (or more likely, foreseen but not forestalled) consequences down the road for a commoditized and commercialized Internet that we did nothing to curb when we had the chance.
I don’t hate Facebook, and I understand why the Wikimedia Foundation doesn’t endorse Internet.org – but I also can’t buy into the cheerleading from some of my office mates on this that ‘any Internet is a good thing’.
Looking ahead, I appreciate this piece by Hassan Baig in TechCrunch that walks the fine line and appreciates the conversation that has sprung from this debate.