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Free Basics expands in Latin America, cause for concern or potential opportunity?

This statement was originally published on derechosdigitales.org on 2 December 2015.

Free Basics, Facebook's platform to expand its reach in the developing world, has provoked varied and impassioned responses from the digital rights community. Forty regional civil society organizations, led by Derechos Digitales, recently issued a statement of concern regarding the arrival of Free Basics in Latin America. At the 2015 Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held a couple of weeks ago in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, silent protesters tried, unsuccessfully, to unfurl a banner reading “Free Basics = Free of Basic Rights.” Even a lengthy piece on Facebook's ambitions in the December 2014 edition of Time magazine, while largely positive, acknowledged that some view Free Basics as “an act of self-serving techno-colonialism.” However, much of the criticism aimed at Facebook has been misdirected. Widespread, unfiltered access to the entirety of the internet is a laudable goal on which there can and should be broad consensus, but it is governments, not private enterprises, that have an obligation to facilitate this.

Facebook, in conjunction with its six founding partners (Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung), launched internet.org (now known as Free Basics) in Zambia in July 2014, and has since expanded to 30 countries worldwide. By its own estimation, the platform is responsible for bringing 15 million additional people online to date. Free Basics offers a free, scaled-down version of Facebook along with a handful of other basic applications, such as those containing news, weather and health information.

To achieve this, Facebook partners with a local mobile phone carrier to carry Free Basics in each market it enters, and as tends to be the case with how most zero-rating services are marketed, the carrier selected usually has a share of total mobile customers that lags significantly behind that of the market leader. Thus, though the mobile carriers don't receive payment from Facebook to offer Free Basics, the partnership can still be an attractive proposition as it can help them gain market share and build their customer base.

But what does Facebook gain from this arrangement? Critics have contended that while Free Basics may be free for customers from a monetary perspective, customers still “pay” with their privacy and data. In response, Facebook says that navigation data is only collected at the aggregate level to determine which services on the platform are being used, and that no personally identifying information is stored beyond 90 days, though this assertion has done little to appease critics.

But the greatest possibility for Facebook to profit from Free Basics lies in the extent to which the platform can be a catalyst for people to access the broader internet. As Facebook will presumably continue to feature heavily in the online activity of these crossover subscribers (who will switch over to the “full” version), the company's potential to profit off of their usage (through advertising and other marketing strategies) increases dramatically. This helps to explain why at the recent IGF, Facebook representatives never missed an opportunity to tell their audiences that their data shows that 50% of those who use Free Basics opt for the paid internet with 30 days of coming online for the first time. Publicizing this fact serves two purposes that are both in the company's interest: it sends a positive signal to investors, and also helps thwart criticism that Facebook wants to keep users of Free Basics in a “walled garden” of content. However, it should also be noted that the only quantitative data available thus far on Free Basics adoption and usage comes from Facebook itself, and that civil society should continue to put pressure on the company to release this data in a complete and transparent way. This is part of the responsibility that Facebook incurs by assuming the role of providing internet access.

Another oft-heard criticism is that many users of Facebook in the developing world do not realize that Facebook is only a subset of the broader internet, and that Free Basics helps to perpetuate this perception. One study found that in Indonesia, for example, 11% of those surveyed that said they used Facebook also said that they did not use the internet. How the next billion users come online will help shape the direction of the internet, and thus this conflation of Facebook and the internet poses very legitimate concerns.

Facebook, by originally selecting “internet.org” for the name the project now known as Free Basics, as well as by presenting the service as a way to bring “the internet” to the unconnected masses, is certainly culpable for contributing to this misperception, as are the media, which have repeated many of Facebook's talking points. But while this can be attributed to either overly aggressive marketing by a for-profit company or to lazy journalism, governments too easily drawn under Facebook's spell ought to be more sharply criticized.

The Free Basics initiative becomes most problematic when governments use the arrival of the platform in their countries as a substitute for real public policies that would expand full internet access for their citizens. The existence of Free Basics does not absolve them of a responsibility to facilitate this unfiltered access. If anything, it should make them think more creatively about how to achieve this goal, rather than defer exclusively to Facebook. With this in mind, the key critics of Free Basics would see their objectives better served by stepping up efforts to encourage their elected officials to enact and enforce more inclusive digital rights policies.

The voices of potential first-time internet users who might actually use Free Basics tend to be excluded from the debate surrounding it, and most opponents criticize from a perch of privilege, in that they are already internet users. In light of this, it's not worth it to throw out the baby with the bathwater for the sake of ideological purity. The best way that governments can respond to criticism that Free Basics violates net neutrality principles is by themselves working not just towards greater access, but towards more neutral access, where first-time users have varied options to choose from. Governments in Latin America can rise to the potential challenges that Free Basics poses by going to greater lengths to demonstrate their commitment to digital inclusion and support for development.

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