The growing outrage surrounding Free Basics by Facebook

Newspapers in India have had full page ads like the one below asking people to support “digital equality.” The Free Basics initiative by Facebook (previously called Internet.org) provides free access to a list of 20 “basic” websites on most mobile plans. More free internet for 1.2 Billion people – all good, then.

free basics, Facebook

However, since the ads were first published a week ago, there has been growing outrage. All of the criticism, to me, revolves around the two words that make up the name – Free and Basics.

The internet has been “free” throughout its history – free in the sense that we could always access any website we wanted for the same cost. There was no priority given to certain websites, regardless of whether or not it was controlled by a service provider. When measures to change this “net neutrality” were discussed in the US Congress a couple of years ago, internet denizens around the world rose up in arms to express their discontent and anger. So, there are a lot of people who hate folks who try to mess with this equality.

The other issue is with “basics.” The issue boils down to one question – who decides what constitutes “basics?” The fact that Facebook does so doesn’t sit well with most people because Facebook, like any profit driven corporation, has incentives. What are the chances Facebook would willingly label a competitive threat as part of their “basics” list?

As Techcrunch points out, Facebook definitely has its work cut out in resolving this.

If I were Facebook, I would consider re-branding the initiative. All of the marketing that has surrounded the initiative seems to indicate a philanthropic initiative and that is the center of this outrage. It is coming across as manipulative. Companies like Google and Facebook benefit greatly from having more people on the internet. More people = more ads = more money. It is no coincidence that the other company experimenting with providing internet for the masses is Google. This is a fantastic business idea – it is akin to subsidizing membership costs (effectively cost of data usage) in countries like India and then getting customers hooked on the service (Facebook does this well). Telling it as it is – “we want more of you to use Facebook and we will subsidize it” – would go a long way.

It is a pity that a fantastic business initiative is getting lost in some misplaced attempt at corporate social responsibility.

(Some folks are using the opportunity to also criticize Mark Zuckerberg for the way he structured his $45 Billion pledge. I think that is nonsense. There are always people who’re going to find ways to criticize people who give. In the critic’s world, the giver would find some unbiased way to donate their wealth. There is, however, no unbiased way. The way I see it, in Mark’s case, it is his money and he can do with it what he likes. If he is going to apply it to make the world better, good for him. At least he’s trying…)

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