Facebook Wants To Bring Controversial Zero Rated 'Free Basics' Service To The States

from the we're-helping! dept

Last year the Indian government forged new net neutrality rules that shut down Facebook’s “Free Basics” service, which provided a Facebook-curated “light” version of the internet — for free. And while Facebook consistently claimed its program was simply altruistic, critics (including Facebook content partners) consistently claimed that Facebook’s concept gave the company too much power, potentially harmed free speech, undermined the open nature of the Internet, and provided a new, centralized repository of user data for hackers, governments and intelligence agencies.

In short, India joined Japan, The Netherlands, Chile, Norway, and Slovenia in banning zero rating entirely, based on the idea that cap exemption gives some companies and content a leg up, and unfairly distorts the inherently level internet playing field. It doesn’t really matter if you’re actually altruistic or just pretending to be altruistic (to oh, say, lay a branding foundation to corner the content market in developing countries in 30 years); the practice dramatically shifts access to the internet in a potentially devastating fashion that provides preferential treatment to the biggest carriers and companies.

Fast forward a year and Facebook is now considering bringing the controversial service to the United States. The company has apparently been in talks with the White House about getting the idea rolling in the U.S., without setting off the same kind of regulatory alarm bells it faced in India:

“The effort to offer a U.S.-based version of Free Basics is moving forward in fits and starts, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the effort has not been publicly revealed. In particular, the company wants to ensure that Free Basics will be viewed favorably by the U.S. government before it launches, thus avoiding a costly repeat of its experience in India.”

Again, India reacted poorly not because Facebook was giving away “free stuff,” but because Facebook was trying to install itself as the 90’s AOL of the modern internet. Content partners dropped out because they didn’t like Facebook dictating which websites and services get to be “zero rated.” Companies like Mozilla suggested that if Facebook really wants to help the world’s poor, it can start by funding access to the actual Internet. Facebook, annoyed by those who don’t believe it’s being purely altruistic, responded by calling such critics “extremists” who are hurting the poor.

The fight comes to US shores as the country is already facing a growing array of problems thanks to zero rating. Whereas India banned the practice, the FCC passed net neutrality rules that don’t ban it outright, opening the door to companies trampling net neutrality if they’re just creative enough. As a result, Comcast, Verizon and AT&T all now exempt their own streaming content from caps while still penalizing Netflix. Similarly T-Mobile and Sprint have now started throttling video, music and games unless customers pay a steep monthly premium.

So while the FCC twiddles its thumbs to what’s quickly becoming a growing problem (unless you’re an ISP or a deep-pocketed content company), Facebook is looking to get in on the ground floor of a concept that professes to be “helping” while dramatically changing the way access to the internet works. Amusingly, the social media giant appears to be treading so carefully, it’s refusing to strike deals with big carriers out of an obvious fear of anti-competitive criticism:

“Facebook has not attempted to strike a deal with national wireless carriers such as T-Mobile or AT&T, said the people familiar with the matter, over concerns that regulators may perceive the move as anti-competitive. Instead, it has pursued relationships with lesser-known carriers.”

Again, if you want to help low-income global citizens access to the internet — doesn’t it just make more sense to help fund connections to the actual internet?

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Comments on “Facebook Wants To Bring Controversial Zero Rated 'Free Basics' Service To The States”

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Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:


It’s a complicated topic and difficult to refuse legitimate philanthropy. If we really can’t just deliver all the Internet, I think we should run the program similarly to the public library model. Certain free resources are available to the people in this area, and the available content is managed by independent local curators to meet the needs and desires of their population. If Facebook wants to make a donation to the library that’s fine, but they don’t get to pick which books their money buys.

Disclosure: I was pissed when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 exploded on the launchpad, but the fact that Facebook’s satellite was destroyed as well almost makes up for it.

NoToFaceConnect says:

Walled Garden with Thorns

No, just no to anything Facebook and connectivity.

It’s bad enough that we have duopolies that cap and throttle our bandwidth, Facebook would simply block anything Not Facebook.


In a better world, NO ISP would have both connectivity and content. You’re either a media provider or a connection, the two must be separate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Yet another reason why Facebook is ...

I always have an over-the-top-roll-of-the-eyes anytime Facebook is mentioned.

I took my suit the a dry cleaners that is close by house and asked they ever have discounts etc. The girl mentioned that do and it is on their website. When I asked what the website was she said “Facebook”.


I took my kids to a “dollar” theater and one of the pre-show ads was some stupid clip about Facebook and a drone that the launched. While the clip was playing I amused myself by thinking about different ways someone with resources and the desire could attack it whilst in flight.

Facebook is evil.

Anonymous Coward says:

Again, if you want to help low-income global citizens access to the internet — doesn’t it just make more sense to help fund connections to the actual internet?

What if all they want to do is help low-income people use Facebook? Are the poor better off with no connection or a limited connection? Isn’t this a case of perfect being the enemy of good?

JBDragon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Most of these University’s act like a walled garden!!! They want nothing buy their leftest views and will go bat sh*t crazy if someone without their views want to talk at their school and generally driving the person away. There sure are not open to different views these days. The radical left has taken over. So Walled garden. Really, should fit right in with Facebook anyway.

Anonymous Coward says:

Truth be told, if Facebook is paying for the service from its own pockets, as much as I dislike it, they kind of have the right to dictate what can or can’t be accessed through the service.

Now if this is closer to a public service, paid with tax money, and Facebook is only a contributor, then the situation changes and really should provide access to the wider internet.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Sure, their ‘game’ their rules, but they don’t get to pretend that they’re doing it to be altruistic or just out of the goodness of their hearts and not expect to get called out on it.

Facebook is trying to do this because it benefits Facebook by putting themselves in the position of curator of what people can access and in the position of gatekeeper, if they were honest and admitted this then the backlash wouldn’t be as bad, a large part of the objection is the frankly laughable assertion that they’re doing this because they just care so very much for the poor.

Rana says:

Re: Re: Re:

… a large part of the objection is the frankly laughable assertion that they’re doing this because they just care so very much for the poor.

Didn’t Mark Zuckerberg vow to donate 99% of his Facebook shares to charity? Of course, his favorite charity just so happens to be himself. I guess it depends on how you define things like “charity” and “poor”. As in “poor little rich boy”.

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