Facebook’s “Free Basics” is like AOL for poor people — and that’s a good thing

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Mobile World Congress.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Mobile World Congress.

A couple of weeks ago, advocates of Internet “fairness” saved millions of poor Indians from the nightmare of free access to Facebook . No doubt they’ll soon try and rescue sub-Saharan Africa from the same fate.

I’d rather they didn’t. I’ve got family over there, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and many of them would benefit from Facebook Free Basics, a stripped down version of the social media site for mobile devices that doesn’t eat up your data plan. Granted, it’s limited, but even limited Internet access can change the life of someone in a developing country.

Facebook board member and Internet pioneer Marc Andreessen got a lot of flak when he posted a tweet denouncing India’s decision to ban Free Basics. But while I don’t care for Andreessen’s sharpish tone, I’m as frustrated with India’s decision as he was, mainly because I’ve had a taste of life in the DRC.

Basic services in Congo’s biggest city, Kinshasa, are often dodgy. But the city has decent 3G cellular Internet service. One leading company will sell you 1.5 gigabytes worth for just $20. But that’s a fortune in a country where the average household income is less than $500 a year.

So it’s a likely market for Facebook Free Basics, which is available in 37 developing countries. Using Free Basics doesn’t count against the user’s data quota, so she can log on as much as she likes.

All Free Basics services are thinned-out, low-bandwidth versions, designed to work on ultra-cheap phones. At first, only Facebook’s handpicked content was available; later the company agreed to host on its Free Basics pages other Internet destinations that provided stripped down content compatible with its technology.

The service launched in India a year ago, and despite being free, only about 1 million people signed up. Still, the company hoped a relentless marketing effort would bring in many more. We’ll never know. India banned the practice, saying that an online service must provide access to all of the Internet on an equal footing, not just select, thinned down snippets.

It’s the idea of “net neutrality,” and it’s got a lot of support worldwide. Even I have a certain affection for it. Imagine an Internet provider who refused to let you see YouTube. We’d never stand for that.

But many net neutrality activists take the idea a lot farther. Some have attacked T-Mobile for streaming unlimited music and videos at no extra cost. By contrast, other activities, like playing videogames, will count against the subscriber’s data cap. The critics say that’s unfair — treat all data the same, they cry. To me, it sounds like good, healthy competition. If gamers want a similar deal, a cellular company will probably offer it.

None of this has much relevance for people who are lucky to get any online access at all. It’s absolutely true that Facebook Free Basics offers second-class Internet access. And absolutely so what? Some of us drive Fords while others have Cadillacs. The net neutralists seem to believe that if a poor man can’t afford an Escalade, he should have nothing at all.

The enemies of Free Basics say it’s just Facebook’s way of securing more users. Yep. But the newbies will soon demand more online goodies. Facebook claims that half of all Free Basics users began accessing the full Internet within a month. Remember how quickly we abandoned America Online when the Internet came along? Free Basics is AOL for poor people—a gateway drug of the best sort.

To those who say Facebook should instead deliver full-fledged Internet service to the poor: They’re working on it. The company’s experimenting with unmanned, solar-powered drones, that would deliver cheap multi-megabit broadband data over a 30-mile radius. It’ll be marvelous, if it works. Why not deploy Free Basics til we find out?

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates often sneers at efforts like Free Basics, for honorable reasons. Spend the money on clean water and vaccinations instead, he says.

But a couple of years ago, before Free Basics became available, one of my wife’s nephews in Congo — one of the few in the family with a smartphone — posted a photo of his newborn daughter on Facebook. The little girl’s eyes were an unhealthy yellow. Alarmed, my wife pinged back a warning, and the child was rushed to a hospital. She’s okay now, but the doctors told her parents that, left untreated, the disease could have been fatal.

Yes, clean water saves lives. But so can Internet access. And for 68 million Congolese, and millions more worldwide, Facebook Free Basics is an opportunity too marvelous to dismiss.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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