Facebook’s Free Basics is Not The Internet


India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority banned Facebook’s Free Basics, a plan to bring free Internet access to poor people in India.

Let’s be clear though: Facebook’s Free Basics is not Free, and it is definitely not The Internet.

First of all, users pay with their data. Here, we understand that online service providers actively surveil our every click. We grant social control in exchange for a place to share our cat photos. Facebook doesn’t call itself “free social network” and Google doesn’t advertise “free search”: We all know better.

For the same price in India, Free Basics provides limited access to a hundred websites and apps. It’s a walled garden, and Facebook and its telecom partner (Reliance Communications) are the gatekeepers.

Did you know that North Korea also has free Internet? It’s called Kwangmyong, and it’s home to 5,500 websites. North Koreans cannot access anything beyond these sites, but it’s free! via dial-up.

Most of us would not consider Kwangmyong the Internet. In fact we might call it a channel for government propaganda.

One of the few North Korean sites accessible from the outside world. We don't get to look at the other 5,499  websites. Who's the outgroup now?
One of the few North Korean sites accessible from the outside world. We don’t get to see the other 5,499 websites. Who’s the outgroup now?

Ugh, did I just compare Facebook to DPRK?

Fine, what about The Great Firewall of China? China’s 750 million online citizens can access some of the global Internet, but not all. All inbound information is tightly censored through deep packet inspection. Is that the Internet, or another form of mind control?

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In 2010, China released a white paper discussing Chinese Internet policies. The document emphasized the concept of “Internet sovereignty,” where each nation has the power to govern local Internet content.

Even in the US, Federal laws enforce exceptions to online free speech. We have protections against obscenity and copyright infringement. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) also maintains our own list of blocked websites under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

How much of your knowledge comes from stuff you read on the Internet? The fact is, he who controls the Internet controls the flow of information. Studies have shown that search engine rankings can shift voting preferences in democratic elections. Why on earth would any government cede this power to Facebook?

Is some Internet better than no Internet at all? If so, how much? I don’t know; that’s not for me to decide. That’s definitely not for Facebook to decide either.