In a Times of India post, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg compares his Free Basics pitch to public libraries, schools, and hospitals. Pay no attention to the fact that his latest humanitarian plan is intensely self-serving. Again.
The “Free Basics” plan that Zuckerberg touts with such moral gravity is, in fact, just a gateway to a massive untapped Facebook demographic. And that’s exactly what he wants to remedy; Free Basics will allow the unwashed masses of India access to his social media network, and very little else. Nothing, in fact, other than what Facebook has approved.
Entitled “Free Basics protects net neutrality,” Zuckerberg’s missive could not be further from the truth. Rather, in the guise of charitable work, Zuckerberg is ensuring that his corporation will be the chief curator of over a billion Indian citizens’ initial exposure to the internet. You can’t put a price on brand awareness like that. Or wait, maybe you can.
While Facebook’s Free Basics doesn’t yet feature ads, it does receive and store “data on navigation information.” For the uninitiated, that’s nearly-free marketing research on an otherwise internet-oblivious population. And those new users won’t have the ability to choose what content they consume, because all of their needs will be serviced by a carefully chosen list of Facebook’s friends.
It’s ludicrous to claim that any of this in any way supports net neutrality, but that’s exactly the line that Zuckerberg is pursuing. He cites “a farmer in Maharashtra called Ganesh” and how Free Basics have enabled his success. Aside from being a very generalized example — Ganesh got weather forecasts and commodity pricing information — it’s also a deflection from a far more insidious statement that the post is trying to make. See if you can spot it:
Critics of free basic internet services should remember that everything we’re doing is about serving people like Ganesh. This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests – there aren’t even any ads in the version of Facebook in Free Basics. If people lose access to free basic services they will simply lose access to the opportunities offered by the internet today.
Right now the TRAI is inviting the public to help decide whether free basic internet services should be offered in India.
Free Basics isn’t a free, basic internet service. It’s a very specific portal through approved partners that would aggressively collect the personal information of billions of people. But Facebook’s fearless leader is desperate to equate Free Basics with actual free basic service. The TRAI isn’t trying to decide whether “free basic internet services should be offered in India,” they’re trying to decide whether Facebook should be able to control the internet access of an entire nation. The decision is whether free access to the country’s poorer citizens is worth all of their personal information and privacy.
This isn’t just outside of the purview of net neutrality, it’s in direct opposition. Net neutrality as a concept exists because of people like Mark Zuckerberg, who would disguise their abuse of technologically backward regulation in order to exploit as many people as possible before the laws can catch up. That he can smile and frame it as a humanitarian effort is as unsurprising as it is nauseating.
The internet is quickly becoming a necessary element of modern life, that much is true. The statistics he abuses to try and sell his latest information strip-mining product are real. Pioneering ways to connect the world population to our primary means of education, communication, and commerce is a noble goal. It’s just not Zuckerberg’s in this case.
Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.