Facebook is Slyly Withdrawing Free ‘Internet’ From Developing Countries

Facebook has slyly stopped providing free of cost ‘internet’ to people of developing countries that were earlier provided with it under their Internet.org scheme. This is after the social media platform was called out from various quarters for helping spread hateful and ethnic cleansing related content like during the time of Rohingya Muslims’ genocide in Myanmar.

Facebook launched their Internet.org project for developing countries in September 2013. It claimed to provide the people of developing countries including India with ‘free internet’ using its Free Basics app. The project had drawn criticism from all quarters due to the blatant violation of net neutrality inherent in it. In 2016, India, the second largest internet market in the world, banned Free Basics citing the violation of net neutrality.

Facebook provided ‘free internet’ to people of 60 countries by deciding which sites the users would have acess to. In other words, the social media platform got to decide what the underprivileged people of developing nations got to see on internet. During Facebook’s quarterly earnings call, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed that it had provided ‘free internet’ to 10 crore users.

This, however does not seem to be the full picture. Now, it looks like Facebook is slyly pulling out of these countries after allowing content of great consequence to human life to spread like wildfire on social media. A sizeable portion of the 10 crore user bank Zuckerberg mentioned comes from Myanmar where the project was launched in 2016. Facebook partnered with local telco Myanma Posts and Telecommunications for the programme.

Internet.org operates by making internet free of cost for Facebook users. Free Basics does not charge people for sites accessed through Facebook thereby making it free of cost. This way, the more the number of people who wanted to use internet for no cost through the scheme, the more the users Facebook got. From 2014 to 2017, the number of people who were using Facebook in Myanmar shot up to 30 lakh from the earlier 2 lakh.

It has now come to light that for people in Myanmar, Free Basics has stopped working. The programme has been abruptly called off in more than half a dozen nations and territories in the recent months, according to an analysis by The Outline. People in Bolivia, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Republic of Congo, Anguilla, El Salvador, and Saint Lucia are among those who lost access to Facebook’s free internet program.

Telecom operator Digicel who was partnering with Facebook for the Free Basics programme in several markets confirmed the news. They cited ‘commercial reasons’ for it, speaking to The Outline.

Now after much more of Facebook’s unethical manipulation and collection of people’s data has come out, people are questioning the intention of Internet.org itself. The Outline also reported that there were people who believed it was only a matter of time till Facebook completely shut down Internet.org.

The biggest violation from the part of Facebook comes when it fails to protect the people who enter internet for the first time through Internet.org. Under this programme since internet is being accessed through Facebook, for most people, internet and Facebook become one and the same. This when Facebook continues to be ill equipped to handle hate speech and even promoting it in more than one instance.

Marzuki Darusman, chairperson of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said in March that in Myanmar, ‘social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media.’ Spreading hate speech in Myanmar therefore was as easy as it was violent from the part of Facebook.

When Zuckerberg was summoned to testify about Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where Facebook collected data of lakhs of users to help manipulate the US Presidential elections, he was questioned about the social media’s involvement in the genocide. Patrick Leahy, senior United States Senator asked, ‘U.N. investigators have blamed you — blamed Facebook for playing a role in the genocide. We all agree it’s terrible. How can you dedicate, and will you dedicate, resources to make sure such hate speech is taken down within 24 hours?’

Zuckerberg answered this saying that hate speech was language specific and that Facebook needed to ramp up their effort there ‘dramatically’.

When seen under the political climate in many of the developing nations, this statement provides no solution. In Myanmar, it looks like Facebook’s underequipped code resulted in genocide. That is, Facebook literally killed people using internet they provided free of cost to get more people to use their product.

After the setback in India, Facebook is seen mentioning Free Basics less and less. Free Basics and Internet.org pages are no longer being updated. There has not been an update regarding any programmes on Internet.org official website. At the same time, Facebook maintains that Free Basics is now available in more than 50 countries and municipalities with 81 mobile operator partners around the world. It claims that more than 1,500 services are available on Free Basics worldwide, provided to people in partnership with mobile operators.

There seems to be no answer to the question of places now stripped of the once free ‘internet.’