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Facebook is no charity, and the ‘free’ in Free Basics comes at a price
https://theconversation.com/facebook-is-no-charity-and-the-free-in-free-basics-comes-at-a-price-52839
Who could possibly be against free internet access? This is the question that Mark Zuckerberg asks in a piece for the Times of India in which he claims Facebook’s Free Basics service “protects net neutrality”.

Free Basics is the rebranded Internet.org, a Facebook operation where by partnering with local telecoms firms in the developing world the firm offers free internet access – limited only to Facebook, Facebook-owned WhatsApp, and a few other carefully selected sites and services.

Zuckerberg was responding to the strong backlash that Free Basics has faced in India, where the country’s Telecom Regulatory Authority recently pulled the plug on the operation while it debates whether telecoms operators should be allowed to offer different services with variable pricing, or whether a principle of network neutrality should be enforced.

Not content to await the regulator’s verdict, Facebook has come out swinging. It has paid for billboardsfull-page newspaper ads and television ad campaigns to try to enforce the point that Free Basics is good for India’s poor. In his Times piece, Zuckerberg goes one step further – implying that those opposing Free Basics are actually hurting the poor.

He argued that “for every ten people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty”. Without reference to supporting research, he instead offers an anecdote about a farmer called Ganesh from Maharashtra state. Ganesh apparently used Free Basics to double his crop yields and get a better deal for his crops.

Zuckerberg stressed that “critics of free basic internet services should remember that everything we’re doing is about serving people like Ganesh. This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests”.

Zuckerberg’s indignation illustrates either how little he understands about the internet, or that he’s willing to say anything to anyone listening.

This is not a charity

First, despite his claims to the contrary Free Basics clearly runs against the idea of net neutrality by offering access to some sites and not others. While the service is claimed to be open to any app, site or service, in practice the submission guidelines forbid JavaScript, video, large images, and Flash, and effectively rule out secure connections using HTTPS. This means that Free Basics is able to read all data passing through the platform. The same rules don’t apply to Facebook itself, ensuring that it can be the only social network, and (Facebook-owned) WhatsApp the only messaging service, provided.

Yes, Free Basics is free. But how appealing is a taxi company that will only take you to certain destinations, or an electricity provider that will only power certain home electrical devices? There are alternative models: in Bangladesh, Grameenphone gives users free data after they watch an advert. In some African countries, users get free data after buying a handset.

Second, there is no convincing body of peer-reviewed evidence to suggest internet access lifts the world’s poor out of poverty. Should we really base telecommunications policy on an anecdote and a self-serving industry report sponsored by the firm that stands to benefit? India has a literacy rate of 74%, of which a much smaller proportion speak English well enough to read it. Literate English speakers and readers tend not to be India’s poorest citizens, yet it’s English that is the predominant language on the web. This suggests Free Basics isn’t suited for India’s poorest, who’d be better served by more voice and video services.

Third, the claim that Free Basics isn’t in Facebook’s commercial interest is the most outrageous. In much the same way that Nestlé offered free baby formula in the 1970s as development assistance to low-income countries – leaving nursing mothers unable to produce sufficient milk themselves – Free Basics is likely to impede commercial alternatives.

By offering free access Free Basics disrupts the market, allowing Facebook to gain a monopoly that can benefit from the network effects of a growing user base. Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, in India, has aptly noted that expanding audience and consumer bases have long been as important as revenues for internet firms. Against Facebook’s immensely deep pockets and established user-base, homegrown competitors are thwarted before they even begin.

Poverty consists of more than just no internet

India will not always have low levels of internet access, this is not the issue – in fact Indian internet penetration growth rates are relatively high. Instead the company sees Free Basics as a means to establish a bridgehead into the country, establishing a monopoly before other firms move in.

There is decades of research about how best to help farmers like Ganesh: access to good quality education, healthcare, and water all could go a long way. But even if we see internet access as one of the key needs to be met, why would we then offer a restricted version?

In presenting Free Basics as an act of altruism Zuckerberg tries to silence criticism. “Who could possibly be against this?”, he asks:
What reason is there for denying people free access to vital services for communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and women’s rights?
That is the right question, but Free Basics is the wrong answer. Let’s call a spade a spade and see Free Basics as an important part of the business strategy of one of the world’s largest internet corporations, rather than as a selfless act of charity.

This article was originally posted on The Conversation
Wikipedians without borders

Our team recently held a workshop for Wikipedia editors in Amman in order to discussion barriers to participation and representation in Wikipedia (with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa). The event had participants from all over the region (from Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Israel, The Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon).

However, this very diversity of participants initial proved slightly controversial: with some editors worried that it would be unhelpful to include both Arabs and Israelis for instance. Despite these concerns, we managed to have very productive discussions and realise that there are some general goals and hopes related to knowledge sharing that united all of us.

As a result, some of the participants have decided to put together a group call ’Wikipedians without borders.‘ The stated goal of the group is Wikipedians from around the world reaching out, individually and collectively, to share their thoughts, ideas and projects for increasing human knowledge and cultural understanding.”

The group might not solve any of the structural inequalities and uneven power relations that we see in the encyclopaedia, but will at least provide a platform for a diverse group of editors to come together and better understand each other’s perspectives. This might then ultimately work to make Wikipedia a more balanced and representative source of knowledge.  

I wish them the best, and invite anyone interested in getting involved to check out their new Facebook page
Cloud Collaboration
I have finished writing a book chapter titled “Cloud Collaboration: Peer-Production and the Engineering of Cyberspace.” The chapter will appear in an edited volume being put together by Stan Brunn. A pre-publication version can be downloaded here.

The abstract is as follows:

The internet has made possible a pooling of labor from around the world on a scale never before possible in human history. Millions of people now contribute work to cyber-projects like Facebook, Wikipedia, and Google Earth. Unfortunately, distinct demographic biases characterize both the creators and the content of these new projects. Rather than bringing everyone into a global village, the internet instead enables hybrid physical/virtual spaces to be created that can never eliminate the global economic inequalities that characterize the physical world. Many of the free contributions of labor on the internet are based on a hope that a shared, open, transparent, and democratic digital commons is being created. However, new cyberspaces are frequently subject to many of the same power relations that characterize the offline-world, with large profits being made by private companies from freely contributed labor. Hopes for a digital commons built by global workforce of volunteers should not be lightly discarded, but as this chapter demonstrates, there remain myriad forms of bias, control and exploitation that characterize many of the projects being constructed in cyberspace.