There is a single principle that guides everything Facebook and its 10,000 employees do. Ubiquity.
The more places Facebook can be, the more money it can make. The more data it acquires, the more it can sell. Ubiquity means making Facebook available all over the world, across every tech device and increasingly, even to people without a data plan. And what could be more ubiquitous than pretending that Facebook is the whole of the freaking Internet?
This is the accusation currently being levied at Mark Zuckerberg’s big blue behemoth. Facebook’s supposedly philanthropic initiative Internet.org is the source of critics’ ire. Some say that it amounts to economic racism, while others think it is a shining example of many global tech companies’ hypocrisy on the issue of net neutrality.
Allow me to explain. Last year, Internet.org officially launched as an app in Zambia, offering cash-strapped mobile users the opportunity to access Facebook and a select group of other websites completely free of charge. Sounds great, right? Well unfortunately Zuckerberg’s charitable intentions aren’t actually all that ‘likeable’.
While the app offers economically disadvantaged users the opportunity to access the Internet, it crucially only lets them see a very small part of the Internet. By calling the app ‘Internet.org’ Facebook are also seemingly attempting to trick Africans, many of whom have never used the Internet, into thinking that Facebook IS the Internet.
Why? Ubiquity, of course. Facebook want to capture the developing market (not just in Africa, but across Latin America and Asia too) to increase their data banks of activity and user information, all of which can be rendered and sold to other businesses for big, big profit.
Developing markets like Africa are, if not ripe for exploitation (they’re still developing and nowhere near peak profitability), ripe for pre-emptive exploitation. By digging their free data into African soil both north and south of the equator, Facebook are planting seeds that will grow to reap great rewards in the future.
The excellent Christopher Mims pointed out as early as 2010, when Internet.org was in its infancy and still called ‘Facebook Zero’, that the cleverest aspect of Facebook’s ubiquity strategy is that “no matter where users start on the ladder of mobile technology, from the most basic device to the newest smartphone, Facebook becomes better and more fun to use as they upgrade”.
Think of Internet.org as an elaborate Spotify subscription drive. Users in developing markets are coerced into usage via a free offering before being pushed towards paying for data plans as they begin to value the service or desire extra functionality – all the while their economy is developing and they are becoming richer and able to spend more on tech. Facebook is allowed to reverse data charges for Internet.org back to the service providers because it is naturally exponential – as users sign up they tell their friends and the user base explodes naturally, meaning that in the long run Internet providers are happy because they have more people buying Internet subscriptions.
While Internet.org is an excellent business investment for Facebook, Reddit user [deleted] explains why this philanthropic project is hurting the very people it is supposed to be helping:
Now the bottom-line and what it all means: Facebook has had a secret motive to confuse, control or limit the Internet through Internet.org. It is simplifying the net and making money off users while using developing countries as a platform to exploit others because there are billions that have never used the net to know the truth for themselves.
The truth of the matter is that everybody can have neutral access to every nook and cranny of the Internet, from lolcats to Wikipedia, Facebook to 4Chan. Data plans can be made affordable through lower-end spectrums like 2G and anyone actually wanting to help developing economies increase Internet access would offer a complete and totally net neutral free service, not Facebook’s meagre smattering of rubbish websites (want Google? You’ll settle for Bing).
If you can’t afford a standard data plan and are thinking about downloading the Internet.org app, by all means go ahead and grab yourself some free data. Just be careful to remember that no matter how ubiquitous Facebook thinks it is, it’ll never be as ubiquitous as the big, beautiful and wild landscape of the real Internet.