Marc Andreessen's deeply offensive tweet about India and colonialism may have earned him a slapdown from Mark Zuckerberg, but it highlighted a very real problem with Facebook's "Free Basics" scheme. The charge of neo-colonialism that sparked the venture capitalist's ill-advised outburst was pretty accurate.
It doesn't have to be this way. It is possible for Facebook(fb) to help spread access to the Internet without playing the part of the colonialist. But before we get to that, let's examine why it is Facebook has opened itself up to such accusations.
Of course Facebook wasn't marching in with gun in hand, seeking to subjugate all who stood before it — it was only partnering with local mobile operators to give people free access to certain online services. However, there are parallels worth drawing.
Railroads, those great emblems of the colonial era, provide a useful point of comparison. Essential commercial and communications infrastructure for the modern world of the time? Absolutely. Potentially useful to locals? Sure. An improvement on the pre-railroad situation? In the colonies, yes and no.
Across India and much of Africa, the British Empire rolled out its railroads on its own terms and primarily for its own needs — to better extract local resources by connecting mines with ports, and to more quickly deploy its officials and troops in order to bolster its imperial expansion. The infrastructure could not be viewed in the light of technological neutrality because, to put it mildly, the motives behind its deployment did not align with the interests of the locals.
So let's return to the tweet that prompted the "justification for Internet colonialism" jibe that sparked Andreessen's foolish words about anti-colonialism being "economically catastrophic for the Indian people":
Given India's history, it's not hard to see why Andreessen came under fire for saying this. Some connectivity is better than none, whatever the motivation behind it, the Facebook director appeared to be saying. Stop being ungrateful.
So what is the ideology behind Free Basics? Like that behind 19th-century colonialism, it's complicated. Part of it is simply down to Facebook's textbook-capitalistic desire to catalyse new markets, so it can expand its business opportunities. This is the same reason why Google is developing a network of Internet-beaming balloons, and why Microsoft(msft), Google(goog) and Facebook are all enthusiastically developing so-called "white space broadband" technology for deployment in emerging markets. Another part of it is a desire to improve people's lives.
That's pretty unobjectionable. The same, however, cannot be said for the flipside of Free Basics — that it only provides access to a limited set of websites, all of which are vetted by Facebook.
These are generally very useful services, giving people a window into information about jobs and health and local laws, as well as Wikipedia and, of course, Facebook and its Messenger service. But here's the thing: Would Facebook allow into its Free Basics walled garden a fledgling, local social network that might tempt people away from Facebook's core service? Would it embrace a rival to its own messaging services?
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This is a classic net neutrality issue, and it applies just the same in India as it does elsewhere in the world. If you offer some stuff more cheaply than other equivalent stuff, or at a higher speed, you are trying to steer people in the direction of a certain product. That's fine if you're the producer, but if you are also the gatekeeper to the market, then that distorts the market. It's anticompetitive and a problem for those trying to develop the market with maximum opportunity for smaller players — the potential giants of the future.
It's important to note that India's telecoms regulator did not shut down Free Basics because it came from a nasty, foreign company. After careful consideration and a lot of lobbying from all sides, the regulator simply set local rules for operators that aim to maintain a level playing field on the Indian Internet. The result is that Facebook can't use the rollout of access as a way to entrench its dominance in social networking and mobile messaging, its operator partners can't use free Facebook to gain an advantage over their rivals, and the same kind of behavior is off-limits to everyone else too.
(At this point, it's also worth noting that Facebook's claims about the effectiveness of Free Basics as a development tool in India are highly debatable — the vast majority of those who took up the offer were existing Internet users who wanted some free data, and it seems a very small number of genuinely new users actually graduated to the world of paid-for Internet access. For more, read this great piece by Sumanth Raghavendra.)
So what can Facebook do to expand markets while shaking off the stigma of the monopolistic colonialist? The answer may lie in initiatives such as Project Isizwe, a free Wi-Fi scheme in South Africa.
Run by a non-profit organization, Project Isizwe specifically targets very poor areas and offers people 250 megabytes of data each day, to use as they see fit. Beyond that, people also get unlimited access to a variety of "on-net" resources ranging from news to local e-government services to business and educational tools (you can see an example of a Project Isizwe portal here).
For more on Facebook's Indian troubles, watch:
To be clear, Project Isizwe is not a perfect model of net neutrality — its unmetered on-net content is essentially in a "walled garden" — but it provides a good range of equivalent services, and people do have the option to use further alternatives for free. If you want to get people online for the first time, this is a relatively fair way to do it.
The thing is, Facebook is actually one of the sponsors of Project Isizwe — it's working with the non-profit to roll out Wi-Fi hotspots in several villages. But it's not in control. These portals are locally run according to local needs, they provide opportunities for stimulating local online businesses, and they avoid the "Facebook is the Internet" trap set by schemes like Free Basics.
Facebook is also working on new connectivity technologies such as drones, millimeter-wave mesh networks, and the aforementioned white-space networks. These could be extremely beneficial tools, as long as they are deployed in the right way.
The company is doing a lot to get people online for the first time, and there's a lot for people to be grateful about. It just shouldn't expect people and regulators in emerging markets to turn a blind eye to the strings it tries to attach to these gifts.
It is possible for Facebook to benefit from its development efforts without playing the role that colonialists once played. It just needs to keep being the most useful option out there in the social networking and messaging markets, without playing dirty to maintain that position — and it needs to leave locals in control.