Free Basics: India’s anti-colonial opportunity

Written by on February 17, 2016 in Guest Blog with 0 Comments

Loving mother and daughter with laptop in outdoorsLet us dispense with any notion of Facebook/Zuckerberg having no ulterior motives in bringing a proprietary, free internet connection to the developing world.

That Facebook stands to benefit enormously by inflating its user-base, creating brand loyalty through free connectivity, and shepherding content through its app-based development vehicle is understood by American spectators and international regulators alike.

Yet under the banner of net neutrality, shutting down Facebook’s Free Basics is hurting the citizens of India (and Egypt, and every other country aiming to block the service) more than it is protecting the inviolable standards of internet freedom.

To recap:

Facebook wants to bring a limited version of the internet to everyone and everywhere that doesn’t already have it.

Limited, in the sense that this Free Basics (formerly service won’t support Google Search or other high-volume (read: high competition) sites and services, instead focusing new users on Facebook’s suite of information and social connectivity.

These limitations are the root of controversy among the target markets for Facebook’s connectivity roll-out, because they violate net neutrality principles by prioritizing some content above others.

But as Zuckerberg has pointed out, the service itself is designed to be content-agnostic; it is intended to provide a zero-rated app platform to any developer – regardless of motives or content – who wants to take advantage of it. Taking Zuckerberg at his word, this system opens up a wealth of opportunities that go well beyond the sharing of information or ad-supported content.

In the interest of public health, international authorities have a lot to gain from new Facebook users in remote, impoverished, or previously unconnected communities. Tracking status updates with telltale phrases support the next generation of medical mapping, and could be applied to everything from deploying emergency services, to identifying a new disease or resurgent epidemic early on.

Free Basics has many observers talking about exploitation, and not without reason. Opening up social media surveillance systems smacks of Big Brother and government overreach, but medical researchers have the opportunity to seek consent upfront, as part of the User Agreement for their applications. Already, evidence suggests that this simple gesture – and an explanation as to what the data is used for, and what benefit it may have – convinces most people that it is worth sharing their data.

Social surveillance, by the way, is just an upshot of one-way communication; giving public health-trackers the capacity to reach out to these new users provides a route for advising, educating, and empowering users to manage their own health, to avoid compounding or neglecting problems, and generally support an improved community health infrastructure.

Further, social media in the developed world is an easy target for scorn and criticism, but for those on the margins it can mean the difference between suffering in silence and gaining visibility and a voice. International movements like Bring Back Our Girls, a phenomenon which transformed a single incident into a magnifying glass over global human trafficking, are made possible by social media access.

Skeptics can easily point out that ‘shares’ don’t drive change directly, but the void between awareness and action is not the fault of the people on the ground, who ultimately deserve a way to, at minimum, represent themselves to the world.

When we talk about bringing basic connectivity – Facebook connectivity – to underserved, unwired communities, the question isn’t just about what ‘version’ of the internet they will get to see and access, but about letting them see and be seen by the rest of the online world. It isn’t paternalistic, and certainly isn’t colonialism; in the right hands, it is very nearly the opposite.

It has been observed before that companies without social accounts effectively don’t exist. That may be irritating or upsetting for those of us who don’t appreciate being peer-pressured into logging in and playing along, but the same may well be said of the individuals left behind by the world’s race to get online: without Facebook, they are invisible.

Certainly, Facebook has all but transparent ulterior motives behind Free Basics. But so have the millions of users who have found creative ways to convert the social platform into a tool that is good for so much more than simply becoming subjects of market research and advertising.

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About the Author

About the Author: Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native writing on trends in health, education, and global affairs. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant. He can be reached on Twitter (@EdgarTwilson), and more of his work viewed at .


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