Plenty of pixelated ink has already been spilt over Facebook’s Internet.org and its latest avatar, Free Basics. For net neutrality activists, especially in India, these kinds of zero-rated services are inherently insidious. For others, objections to Free Basics are merely based on knee-jerk anti-Facebook prejudice—not honest, fact-based reflection. Before I wade into the argument, indulge me while I make a short—but relevant—digression.
Designing for digital parity, not the digital divide
According to GSMA, smartphones will account for two-thirds of the world’s mobile phones by 2020, reaching 6 billion people across the world. The mobile sector—and consumer tech more broadly— appears to be the one sector where the developing world is quickly headed towards parity with donor countries. The Global South might continue to have fragile political systems, poor public health outcomes, and stunted economic growth. But they won’t have to wait any longer than we will to get the latest iPhone.
For the ICT4D crowd, this means that we’re going to have to design our programs differently—the days of SMS polling are numbered, for sure. But I think this trend demands a more profound shift in our thinking beyond just informing which platforms we choose. If our white papers are anything to go by, we wake up every morning chanting the “do no harm” mantra. But we’ve often failed to ask ourselves a more discomfiting question: “Is this the kind of development I’d like to see happening in my community?”
Do we do unto others?
This ‘Golden Rule’ question is easier to ignore when the differences between donors and developing countries are seen as both vast and intractable. Development programs are often based on the assumption that donors and recipients live worlds apart, literally and figuratively. And the logic that some aid is better than none at all quickly follows. But in a world where digital parity fast replaces the digital divide, I think it forces us to be uncomfortable with notions of ‘good enough’ development. Offering a bespoke version of the internet—tailored by an American corporation, mind you—to the benighted natives is based on an approach to development that’s comfortable with handing out scraps.
Zero-rating stacks the deck
To quote the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s piece on net neutrality and the digital divide: “It goes without saying that users will be much more inclined to access a zero-rated service than one for which they need to pay, and that this tilts the playing field in favor of the zero-rated content owner.”
Many of us in the United States have probably seen ads for T-Mobile’s ‘Binge On’ service, which allows users to watch select streaming services—Netflix, Hulu, and others—without eating into data limits. This sounds good on the surface, but a minute of reflection would reveal that this kind of zero-rating perpetuates the dominance of the current winners. How many of us gleefully cut our cable cords when the then-underdogs like Netflix became a viable alternative to Comcast’s terrible cable service? How many of us would be OK if services such as Binge On prevented some future streaming service—with better shows and better prices—from getting a foot into the market? Most of us, I suspect, would shut that down in the time it takes to share a John Oliver video.
If my social network feeds were anything to go by, many of my ICT4D friends were enthusiastic supporters of the FCC decision on neutrality here at home, and they continue to be vigilant about possible infringements on the still-fragile ruling. Rightly so. While Free Basics does not necessarily perpetuate the dominance of those chosen few websites that Facebook allows on its platform, it certainly creates a kind of experience of the internet that we wouldn’t be willing to tolerate for ourselves. Why should we expect people in the developing world to react any differently to Free Basics?