Facebook and a Different Side of Charity

Back in May of 2010, Facebook launched what seemed to be a virtuous undertaking: Facebook Zero [1], whose aim was to broaden Internet access around the world, specifically targeting the lesser-developed ‘global south’ where tech industries remain in the infant stages of development. Collaborating with over 50 mobile services worldwide, the initiative gave mobile-users free access to a bare bones version of Facebook, a practice known as zero-rating or sponsored data. Although 0.facebook.com is accessible via several carriers throughout Western Europe - from Three in the UK to SFR in France - the majority of mobile networks teaming up with Facebook operate in countries throughout Africa and South Asia.

Zuckerberg’s objective to “put every human being in the world online” no longer seems to be a pipe dream, as the number of African users on Facebook increased by an average of 114% [2] a year and a half after Facebook Zero’s launch - the highest growth rates reached a monumental 4000% in the Central African Republic and 2400% in Chad. Similarly, developing countries like India and Brazil take up six of the top ten countries with the most Facebook users [3], which signals potential for exponential rises as their market growth gathers, increasing momentum. But what is jarring is the view from the other side. Helani Galpaya, CEO of tech policy think tank LIRNEasia [4], conducted a survey in 2012 of Facebook users across Southeast Asia [5], and discovered that users reported no use of Internet while simultaneously extolling their usage of Facebook.

source: http://qz.com/333313/milliions-of-facebook-users-have-no-idea-theyre-using-the-internet/

For these users, Facebook became a synonym for the Internet whose existence they were not actually aware of - a phenomenon Facebook is cognizant of, and even seemingly on board with. “We know Facebook is one of the main drivers of why people buy phones, particularly in the developing world,” Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg pointed out [6], “People will walk into phone stores and say ‘I want Facebook.’ People actually confuse Facebook and the Internet in some places.” But this confusion adds a slightly insidious layer to Zuckerberg’s ever-optimistic aim of connecting the entire world - which now appears to be occurring within the vacuum of Facebook itself and not the World Wide Web his dream initially invokes.

Perhaps the confusion even served as inspiration for Facebook’s second global connectivity scheme, initially called internet.org during its launch in August of 2013. Rebranded as Free Basics in September 2015, the organisation exists as a partnership between Facebook and six major tech companies, among them Samsung and Nokia, with the collective goal of expanding affordable Internet access into lesser developed countries. “We believe that connectivity is a human right,” Zuckerberg voices in its promotion video [7], “and that connectivity can’t just be a privilege for some of the rich and powerful. It needs to be something that everyone shares.”

At its core, this is a worthwhile and productive aim, and Free Basics’ laid out three critical steps towards achieving it: improving mobile device affordability by developing inexpensive and high quality smartphones; utilising data more efficiently by investing in improvements of network connectivity and data compression; and providing support for businesses to expand their own web accessibility. These steps not only appear pragmatic and realistic but have been the subject of mcuh discourse in the last five years on information technology and its potential for lifting nations out of poverty. On the one hand, the internet undeniably opens access to a wealth of information that is otherwise beyond reach to those living on less than $2 a day. And as the narrative goes, information is knowledge is power - harnessed through masses that now have a substantially better understanding of governance, human rights, health, knowledge that can then shape the nation’s infrastructure and policy. In Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, authors Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler describe how the “lens of technology” illuminates the fact that “[...] few resources are truly scarce; they’re mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview.” And along an even more idealist vein, Zuckerberg stated at the United Nations’ 70th General Assembly [8] that "By giving people access to the tools, knowledge and opportunities of the Internet, we can give a voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.”

It all sounds promising, and rings at least partially true - the development of technology, and specifically information technology, has played a significant role in orienting once-undeveloped economies towards a state of flourishing industrialization, perhaps most notably seen in the staggering growth of China and South Korea’s economies, and more recently India’s as well. But IT as a solution to poverty has its fair share of skeptics. Computer scientist and University of Michigan professor Kentaro Toyama begins his article “Can Technology End Poverty?” [9] with an account of one visit he made to a ‘telecenter’ in India - essentially an internet cafe with an educational twist - where citizens of all ages can walk in, sit at one of the few PCs in the room, and gain immediate access to an abundance of information. While seemingly ripe with potential for self-education or connection to communities beyond their own, the telecenters, as Toyama discovered, were more inefficient than indispensable to the community it served. Information technology is maximally effective in alleviating poverty only when coupled with “competent, well-intentioned people” who possess enough skills and computer literacy to navigate its complicated and ever-changing realms - otherwise, it can be a waste of time and resources for both provider and user, and as Toyama aptly puts [10], “[...] usage doesn’t always mean positive social value, as we know from the tobacco industry.”

Yet another issue with heedless expansion of Internet access lies in the more recent conflicts over net neutrality, between the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and Zuckerberg’s move to extend Free Basics’ services to India’s poorest citizens. The ‘Internet’ Free Basics provides consists of the text-only Facebook of Facebook Zero, as well as select news, employment, and health services online - essentially a free trial version of the actual world wide web, which customers can purchase data packs for should they enjoy the taster.

Critics of Facebook Zero and zero-rating services like it argue that this hand-picked basket of services violates the basic principle of equal access to all content on the net, and those skeptical of Facebook’s online hegemony are concerned about presenting a heavily skewed introduction to the Internet for inexperienced users. There have also been mentions of Free Basics’ as representative of an era of neocolonialism, both explicit comparisons - Indian-American tech writer Om Malik’s “What do the British Raj and Facebook’s Free Basics have in common? A lot, actually.” [11] - and appallingly ignorant observations like Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreesson’s recent Twitter fiasco [12]:

source: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Ca1Ddi3XEAEDfnx.jpg

Like Malik describes, the supposedly well-intentioned Free Basics initiative and its provision of a ‘free good’ that they retain control over is reminiscent of the similarly unwelcomed 17th century arrival of Britain’s East India Company at the port of Surat, and its eventual establishment of British control over a majority of South Asia and its natural resources. And while becoming a successful venture capitalist and Facebook board member doesn’t require thorough knowledge of Western Europe and the United States’ dark history of colonialism and exploitation, Andreessen’s lack of awareness points to a deeper issue within the field of economics itself - that more often than not, discussions of economic growth sidestep mentions of a country’s imperialist history.

Postcolonial studies, a relatively new discipline that emerged around the 1970s, has created a much-needed space for greater examination of the sociopolitical legacies left by colonisers on the colonised. And while postcolonial thought has, in recent years, gotten incorporated into various disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, from anthropology to psychology, economics has yet to see any interdisciplinary work between the two. As globalisation shifts its status from buzzword to a normalised facet of international economics, it is crucial for economists to understand the the historical power hierarchies between Western and non-Western nations that have played a significant role in molding the contemporary world economy, a landscape where the lines between globalization and neoimperialism are perhaps more hazy than anything. Understanding the history of subjugation between coloniser and colonised is essential to strengthening modern-day relationships between the two - and ultimately can serve as the real first step in truly connecting the world.


[1] https://www.facebook.com/notes/facebook/fast-and-free-facebook-mobile-access-with-0facebookcom/391295167130/

[2] http://www.oafrica.com/statistics/facebook-user-growth-rates-in-africa-june-2010-december-2011/

[3] http://qz.com/5180/facebooks-plan-to-find-its-next-billion-users-convince-them-the-internet-and-facebook-are-the-same/

[4] http://lirneasia.net/about/

[5] http://qz.com/333313/milliions-of-facebook-users-have-no-idea-theyre-using-the-internet/

[6] http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2015/01/20/facebook-touts-its-economic-impact-but-economists-question-numbers/

[7] https://developers.facebook.com/docs/internet-org

[8] http://money.cnn.com/2015/09/26/news/mark-zuckerberg-united-nations-poverty-internet/

[9] http://bostonreview.net/forum/can-technology-end-poverty

[10] http://blog.ict4djester.org/2013/08/28/internet-org-and-why-facebook-is-the-matrix/

[11] http://qz.com/614887/what-do-the-british-raj-and-facebook-free-basics-have-in-common-a-lot-actually/

[12] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-02-10/marc-andreessen-pro-colonialism-tweet-riles-up-india-tech-world

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