Tuesday, September 29, 2015

This is about internet.org a.k.a Free Basics from Facebook

In May this year, Mark Zuckerburg announced taking an altruistic turn and pledged Facebook’s resources in providing internet access to some parts of our planet, the aim was to provide free basic internet access on a platform that was christened internet.org. This month that got re-christened as Free Basics for Facebook. There was a truly desi spin given to this measure which was identified with #ConnectIndia, the motive remained the same.

A lot of charitable work has been done by Tech Entrepreneurs from North America. Ground breaking research in combating AIDS, eradicating polio and with that goal in mind for leprosy. Contraception, infant care and nutritional supplements were all led at some point by or are continuing to be led by foundations funded by big corporates, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is just one such example. With that background a lot of people welcomed Facebook wanting to provide basic internet service to regions that haven’t been exposed to it so far.

Imagine a village, where a basic phone that has an internet browser is available but with no infrastructure to let the phone access the billions of web sites that constitute what’s essentially known as the INTERNET. Imagine a service provider, who embarks on provisioning GPRS, EDGE or 3G or LTE connections, and get these phones on the information superhighway. Imagine the poor farmer being able to access weather patterns or current prices for his crop, to be able to carry out financial transactions without having to visit the nearby town’s bank.

Imagine the farmer’s child, accessing the finest of lectures on trigonometry or fine arts or literature or ideas for that school project. Imagine the lady of the household being able to access all the video and music and be able to chat with her distant cousin in a foreign land or another village without wasting money on phone calls that go dead in the monsoons. The intent in provisioning free basic internet access can never be faulted. So where is the problem?

The problem is in how Facebook wants to solve this conundrum. Facebook wants to tie up with internet service providers in the region and get them to allow access exclusively to http://internet.org. On this platform Facebook has curated a set of websites and made available as part of it’s free basic internet service. No points for guessing that Facebook is the only social media platform available, not Google+ or Ello. The platform is also not going to support HTTPS URLs which means no encryption of data between the user and the destination on the internet. To cite just one problem with this, if you were to access your bank account on a HTTP connection a sniffer can access your username and password bloody easily.

Facebook therefore wants to direct these new users to a tiny set of websites that constitute the internet. In the name of providing free basic internet all Facebook is doing is finding newer users in the developing world, and since they can’t afford the costs associated with internet connectivity, provides them with seemingly free access but restricts them to a platform it has built (internet.org) and thereby increase it’s own customer base and therefore deny them access to those billions of websites that would otherwise be available on the internet. Now if anyone thinks, “Isn’t this how the missionaries landed in Africa with the Bible?” it won’t be misrepresentative.

Why would they do that? The answer is fairly simple. Google, Facebook and Twitter are the significant platforms in the world in terms of number of users on them as well as number of active users. I’ve completely disregarded data from Chinese social networking sites since they operate in isolation compared to the rest of the world. Google and Facebook have almost the same number of active users (around 1.4 billion). Google’s revenue last year was $66 billion while Facebook’s was a little short of $12.5 billion. For approximately the same amount of users Google rakes in more than 5 times in revenue.

There is going to be significant pressure on Facebook’s stock in maximizing its potential to earn more dollars per user. Facebook’s organic growth has reached a plateau. It acquired WhatsApp for a gargantuan valuation to add to its user base and it probably made sense too. It hasn’t come up with a clear roadmap in integrating the platforms though it has tried to innovate with making calls possible between WhatsApp users. How else can Facebook grow?

That’s where the air brushed altruism comes into picture and that’s in getting more people onto their platform but since they have their own challenges Facebook sets out to solve one such challenge, by giving them internet access but restricting it to internet.org. After a few years you’ll be surprised when someone who grew up with Free Basics from Facebook says “We have Facebook” when what they actually should be saying is “We have Internet”.

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