Many developing nations are still struggling to find their foothold in the digital world, and Facebook has a plan to connect the billions of people still left without the internet's advantages. To the dismay of some internet-freedom activists, that plan involves Facebook's software being the sole gateway to the web.
Facebook is offering a program, called "Free Basics," in Asia, Latin America and Africa. It offers easy access to the internet, so long as users go through Facebook and the sites it approves. But Indian privacy activists are saying that this kind of corporate imperialism sets up Facebook as a foreign body with total control over how Indians use the internet.
So Facebook is striking back with the Save Free Basics campaign. At the top Facebook feeds for Indian users, there is now a form that allows Indians citizens to easily petition the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India with this message:
I support digital equality for India. Free Basics provides free access to essential internet services like communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and more. It helps those who can't afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online. And it's open to all people, developers and mobile operators. With 1 billion Indian people not yet connected, shutting down Free Basics would hurt our country's most vulnerable people. I support Free Basics — and digital equality for India. Thank you.
"Hundreds of millions of people in India use the Internet every day and understand the benefits it can bring," Facebook told Mic in a statement. "This campaign gives people the opportunity to support digital equality in India. It lets people speak in support of the 1 billion people in India who remain unconnected, and lets them participate in the public debate that is being held by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on differential pricing for data services."
This isn't the first case of a tech company using its influence and reach to ask people to address their government representatives. In July, when Uber wanted to protest New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's regulations for the ride-sharing app, Uber placed a prompt front-and-center in its app so, as soon as New Yorkers went to ask for a car, Uber petitioned them to fight back against their own elected officials.
It's not just that Facebook is using its influence that has activists upset. It's that it looks like a double standard.
In the U.S., Facebook has been an advocate for net neutrality, the concept that service providers we pay for internet access shouldn't be able to control the internet's actual content. But in India and other countries where Facebook wants to roll out, Facebook appears to be the kind of service provider they're fighting at home.
"Our concern with Internet.org/Free Basics is that it will create a new digital divide: those who access Facebook and its partner services, and those who access the open internet," wrote Save the Internet, a Indian net neutrality activist collective, in response to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's recent visit to New Delhi. "There are ways of providing internet access in a manner that is open, so that everyone gets access to the whole of the internet, without discrimination between web services, and without violating net neutrality."
The gist: Facebook is promoting net neutrality while being the sole provider of internet services. Moreover, it's hypocritical for Facebook to blame these activists for standing between people who need access to the internet and the Western benefactors willing to provide it.
"Free Basics is in danger in India," the petition on Facebook says. "A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all internet services — even if that means 1 billion people can't afford to access any services."
Worldwide blowback: Earlier this month, Zuckerberg announced he'd be putting 99% of his wealth into an LLC that would fight disease, promote technology in classrooms and spend the next few decades bringing the rest of the world online.
India isn't the only country worried about a foreign monopoly with complete control over what kind of content its people have access to. In places like Kenya and South America, the same fears about Facebook having total control of the internet have taken hold. Demonstrators at the Brazilian governance forum in November unfurled a banner that read "Free Basics = Free of Basic Rights."
But regardless of how advocates and journalists in those countries feel, Facebook is already winning hearts and minds. In countries like Indonesia, there are already millions of people who use Facebook but don't have any idea that the internet — a more free, open, better version — even exists.