No Freedom In Free Basics

While Americans and much of the West are fighting battles for net neutrality and Internet privacy (winning some and losing others), many other nations are still struggling to get their people to sign-on. The holdup is twofold: cost and awareness. Various organizations and corporations are working with local governments and telecommunication companies (telecoms) to deliver fast and affordable access to the web while advertising its benefit. In the efforts to expand connectivity, no other company has faced as much scrutiny and ire than Facebook and their initiative Free Basics. Despite Facebook's claim that their quest for universal connectivity respects and defends network neutrality, their implementation is flawed and inherently incompatible with the principles of a neutral web.

Free Basics by Facebook is one of many parts composing and its mission to expand Internet access to more people. The service works to provide people access to a growing collection of essential, or basic, services and websites for free without data charges, including "news, employment, health, education and local information." The expressed goal is to "[introduce] people to the benefits of the internet" in hopes of "[bringing] more people online and help improve their lives." The noble and benevolent efforts have faced criticism from net neutrality advocates and locals for creating what is ostensibly a second-class Internet that is limited to services and sites vetted and approved solely by Facebook.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Vice President Chris Daniels recently attempted to clear up misconceptions in an op-ed published in the Times of India and through an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit's India community. This wasn't Zuckerberg's first time addressing concerns about,, and since then some of the concerns regarding Free Basics have been address. But the system is still broken. In both instances Zuckerberg stressed the importance of the Internet as a tool for economic and social progress and Facebook's dedication to net neutrality stating, "two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist." In this, he's absolutely correct. However, Free Basics in its current form does not, and cannot, provide either ideal fully.

Free Basics works through a method known as zero-rating whereby cellphone carriers and Internet service providers (ISP) charge little or nothing for the data used by certain apps or web services. In the case of Free Basics in India, the local cellphone carrier Reliance Communications provides free access to which includes Facebook and other services vetted and approved by Facebook. All other parts of the web not submitted and approved incur a charge. In the U.S. the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to take a "wait-and-see" approach to the practice, but advocates for net neutrality argue it goes against the very principles of a neutral web by way of "positive discrimination". Providing toll-free access to parts of the web creates an environment where service providers favor one service over another. The longterm risk in countries with already well established Internet services is the creation of gatekeepers to the web. Free Basics' implementation in countries attempting to expand Internet connectivity has a built-in gatekeeper establishing a second-tier Internet of Facebook controlled and approved services.

The invaluable social good of expanding access to the entirety of the Internet to millions of people is not something to be dismissed. The problem is Zuckerberg's incredibly bold claims, going so far as to title his op-ed "Free Basics protects Net Neutrality". These claims are not only incredibly disingenuous, but dangerously misleading about the core principles of network neutrality.