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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Filed Under: blocking, fcc, free basics, limits, net neutrality, throttling, us, zero rating
Companies: facebook

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  1. icon
    Jeremy Lyman (profile), 12 Oct 2016 @ 7:26am


    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.

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