Why Facebook's Free Basics Internet Service Stirs Up Controversy

Why Facebook's Free Basics Internet Service Stirs Up Controversy
Free Basics Is Facebook's Brain Child
Facebook Is Working With Partners
Facebook Is Focusing on Emerging Markets
Facebook Is the Ultimate Gatekeeper
The Question Over Net Neutrality
Facebook Wants to Be the Web Portal to Emerging Markets
This Is Why Zuckerberg Is Offering Free Basics
Critics Decry Facebook's Control Over Free Basics
Free Basics Tries to Reduce the Cost of Data Downloads
Free Basics' Uncertain Future
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Why Facebook's Free Basics Internet Service Stirs Up Controversy

Facebook, through its Free Basics platform, hopes to bring the Internet to people in emerging markets. But not all countries are on board. Here's why.

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Free Basics Is Facebook's Brain Child

Although Facebook isn't the only company involved in Free Basics, it's getting the most attention because the social media giant kicked off the Internet.org initiative. Facebook is the program's leading backer and doing more than any other firm to expand it globally. Without Facebook, there would be no Free Basics.

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Facebook Is Working With Partners

Facebook is working with partners in an effort to expand Internet access around the world. Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson and a few other firms are involved in getting free Internet to those who don't have connectivity. Facebook also partners with local mobile operators in individual countries.

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Facebook Is Focusing on Emerging Markets

Central to the Free Basics mission is to provide free Internet access to people in emerging markets. As of this writing, Free Basics is available in 38 countries, including Angola, Ghana, Kenya and even Iraq. Facebook says it will expand Free Basics to more countries, in hopes of getting billions of people connected to the Internet.

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Facebook Is the Ultimate Gatekeeper

Because Free Basics is essentially Facebook's idea, the social network holds the keys to the kingdom. For a while, Facebook only allowed certain services onto its platform, limiting where users could go. Finally, Facebook opened up Free Basics to any Website, but has placed restrictions on the amount of data that can be used, content that can be distributed and more. In other words, any company can join Free Basics and get its platform in front of users, but first, it will have to be vetted by Facebook.

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The Question Over Net Neutrality

The ultimate question, therefore, is whether Free Basics violates net neutrality, or the idea that the Internet should be open and free to any and all participants. India ultimately decided that Free Basics violated net neutrality by essentially creating a "walled garden" in which Facebook would control who could get in. Facebook, a longtime net neutrality supporter, has argued that some Internet is better than no Internet and it in no way sees Free Basics as a violation of net neutrality.

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Facebook Wants to Be the Web Portal to Emerging Markets

By placing itself at the center of the Free Basics platform, Facebook has created a scenario in which it's the portal for potentially billions of people to see the Internet. Free Basics is designed for those who have never been online and don't necessarily know about companies like Google, Microsoft or Amazon. By offering Free Basics, Facebook wants to get a chance to introduce billions of additional potential users to its social network and related services. That could ultimately help the company's user numbers grow substantially in the coming years.

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This Is Why Zuckerberg Is Offering Free Basics

So, why is Mark Zuckerberg offering Free Basics? In a town hall meeting in India last year, he was clear that he believed it was in the best interests of disadvantaged people who would otherwise lose out in the information economy. In an op-ed published in the last few days before Indian regulators pulled the plug on Free Basics, Zuckerberg made one last plea, pointing to farmers that benefited from Free Basics. He also argued that while Free Basics wouldn't be the ultimate solution for Internet connectivity, it was a step in the right direction. "Who could possibly be against this?" he asked in the op-ed.

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Critics Decry Facebook's Control Over Free Basics

On the same day that Zuckerberg's op-ed was published in The Times of India, a "counterview" op-ed was published by Indian entrepreneur Nikhil Pahwa. He argued that Free Basics violates net neutrality by choosing its partners and deciding for itself what companies get access to its users. He argued that Facebook was "rejecting the option of giving the poor free access to the open, plural, and diverse web." He also decried Zuckerberg's claim that being able to access some of the Internet is better than none of it. His comments echoed those made by other critics, who have charged Facebook with having too much control and putting itself in a position to eventually benefit financially.

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Free Basics Tries to Reduce the Cost of Data Downloads

To understand Free Basics, one must understand how emerging markets work. Approximately 85 percent of the world is covered through mobile networks. However, downloading data over those networks can be exceedingly expensive in developing countries. Facebook's idea is to partner with local carriers that will swallow the cost. Meanwhile, Facebook and its partners work to limit how much data is consumed by apps to reduce the burden on carriers. Ultimately, the goal is to get users to move to a paid subscription so they can have full Internet access.

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Free Basics' Uncertain Future

So, what's next for Free Basics? At least right now, opinions are split. There are some—especially those in the Facebook camp—who believe the ban in India is little more than a bump in the road. They argue that Free Basics will expand over time and more people will get online. Others, however, say that India may have set an example and woken up countries about the potential impact Free Basics will have on their own citizens and might prompt them to follow India's lead.

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