Mark Zuckerberg in an Indian internet café. (Photo: Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook)
Why Zuckerberg's vision of giving India "Facebook-Internet" failed?
When Mark Zuckerberg came to India for his internet.org summit in October 2014, he brought a vision of what India would look like in the future: “One day, if we can connect every village [to the internet], we can transform many more lives and improve the world for all of us." He was deeply moved by a visit to a remote Indian village in Rajasthan.
by the Know Nothing Enquirer 21/05/2016
Shortly before he arrived there, the electricity had gone out and the newly installed wireless internet would not work. A boy showed him his Facebook profile through an excruciatingly slow 2G connection. This, Zuckerberg thought, was unacceptable. Of course, he had a solution: Facebook's Internet.org (now known as "Free Basics") - basic internet for free to help India's rural poor access essential services, such as Facebook and 36 other sites.
There is no doubt that facilitating access to the internet in developing countries is a very important issue. Or how Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page:
"The internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress. It gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities. It gives voice to the voiceless in our society, and it connects people with vital resources for health and education."
There are many ways to achieve universal internet access, with Facebook's "Free Basics" being one of them. However, Indian netizens were vehemently against Facebook's attempt to give them "free" internet. #savetheinternet, a pro-net-neutrality campaign, went viral and the Indian Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) eventually banned Facebook's initiative on the grounds of net neutrality.
So why did things go so wrong in India, whilst in other countries, such as the Philippines or Zambia, internet.org was an instant success? After all Narendra Modi had just become prime minister with a campaign (making heavy use of social media) to modernise the country through inclusive sustainable development. One of his ambitious projects is "Digital India" - to improve online infrastructure, connecting rural areas with high-speed internet networks and increasing digital literacy amongst the population.
If Facebook and the Indian government want to achieve the same thing, surely it would make sense for them to cooperate in this issue. At least that is what Zuckerberg tried to tell Indians.
While the goals of the two might seem pretty similar, their approaches are hugely different - and so are the outcomes. Facebook's vision of "Free Basics" basically entails a stripped down version of the internet (to save bandwidth) curated by the company. In countries where Facebook successfully implemented the service, they get to decide which websites are featured amongst the 36 websites. Or in Nikhil Pahwa's words:
"Digital India is about making the Internet available to the masses, while with Internet.org, Zuckerberg made the pitch yesterday for making the Internet free for the masses. Sounds like a perfect fit, but it hardly is. What PM Modi and his advisors must take heed of, is that what Zuckerberg means by Internet for all, is essentially Facebook for all, along with a few non-profit services thrown in to give it the appearance of philanthropy, and maybe a few co-opted competitors to make it appear as if it isn’t about Facebook only."
And of course, as the Guardian points out, Facebook has huge long-term interests in the Indian market. The company is banned in the most important emerging market, i.e. China and only accessible through VPN connections. According to UNESCO, 72.1% of the Indian population is literate but, according to the International Telecommunications Union, only 34.8% are internet users - a lot of potential customers for Facebook. It is also possibly very lucrative for the network provider. The Filipino telecommunications company that teamed up with Facebook to provide "Free Basics" increased its market share tremendously within only two years, becoming the number one player. The customers using "Free Basics" will soon want to have access to the real thing and - with rising wealth - will know where to invest their income first. Payal Arora's research supports this line of argumentation. Tt might not sound rational to invest a substantial amount of one's income in a smart phone or online services, but for a slum dweller in a South Asian metropolis going online has a completely different meaning to that of, let's say, a middle class Parisian. There is a huge significance to being able to connect to the world wide web that "the poor" in conservative countries in the Global Sough value very highly. There are also "real" incentives that make the internet so popular. A slum dweller can access job searching sites, while a farmer in rural India can learn modern farming techniques, check the up-to-date crop rates and sell his produce online.
Facebook's business model relies on its users generating content and spending as much time as possible on it. Or in Christian Fuchs' words: internet consumers being exploited through the participatory networking sites of for-profit corporations - what is essentially free labour. The more time we spent on Facebook, the more the company knows about us and the more companies are willing to invest in advertising campaigns. In the case of the rural poor it is all about future income. Facebook is basically investing in 700 million new potential prosumers. And it also means a lot of new potential customers for the other services offered on "Free Basics". It goes without saying that there is not any competition on Facebook's curated version of the internet. And it teaches new netizens that Facebook equals Internet.
The entire concept of the venture had a colonialist touch to it from the start. Facebook decides who gets to join the party and then probably takes a certain percentage of the income - somewhat reminiscent of the British tea and salt taxes.
Modi's Digital India was supposed to digitally empower society. Facebook's vision of the internet for the poor might have noble intentions but, in effect, it is a self-serving tool to extend its network and further cement its monopoly. Disregarding net neutrality does not only violate personal freedom, it also harms fair competition. Facebook's internet makes it extremely difficult for start-ups to join their "Free Basics" (and therefore be part of a huge network of potential new customers). Either they would need the capital to gain access to the "exclusive club" or somehow manage to convince Zuckerberg of their importance. The company has fought intensely to convince Indians of the need of Facebook's version of Digital India. They spent over £30 million on offline and online marketing campaigns and aggressively tried to persuade all Indian Facebook users to sign an online petition to save their project. In the end, India's strong civil society won the battle. They managed to make net neutrality popular, a concept until then only some nerds thought was worthwhile fighting for. Millions sent emails to the government and nearly 400,000 Indians signed a petition on change.org. On 8 February 2016, TRAI prohibited telecom service providers from levying discriminatory rates for data. The proponents of net neutrality had won.
The debate in India coincided with that in other countries. India now has one of the most progressive rulings on net neutrality. In June 2015, the European Union member states agreed on a basic framework to ensure net neutrality across the entire EU. However, the regulation's text has been criticised as offering loopholes and thus being relatively ineffective. Some member countries have implemented very strong interpretations of net neutrality, such as the Netherlands and Slovenia, but they remain the minority.
Indian internet activists have made net neutrality something worth fighting for. India's case is especially significant for the emerging countries. It shows that a big internet corporation cannot implement its vision of the future in a colonial fashion. The internet has to remain free and this is especially crucial for those who are just experiencing it for the first time. And in this point Zuckerberg is right - the internet is an extremely powerful tool for progress. However, its foundations have to be fair and just.
Zuckerberg wearing a suit and explaining the internet to Narendra Modi. (Photo: Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook)