Who Could Possibly Be Against This: Facebook, Free Internet and the Digital Divide

By: Lexi Herman

The Internet Law community has been buzzing about Net Neutrality since the Federal Communications Commission passed net neutrality rules in 2015 preventing service providers, like Verizon or Comcast, from blocking or slowing the traffic of their rivals and/or giving priority to certain sites.  At the time the rules were passed, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stated that these rules are to ensure that no one controls access to the internet.  However, one company seems to be doing just that – controlling people’s access to the internet.  And that company is none other than Facebook.  Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen, but many people have expressed their displeasure with Facebook’s “Free Basics” and have vigorously argued that Free Basics is a violation of the FCC’s net neutrality rules.  The goal of this article is to define what Free Basics is and why so many people, especially in India, are upset about it.

According to the Internet.org website; Free Basics by Facebook provides internet access to people in 38 countries; including India, Iraq and Mexico.  Facebook teamed up with mobile operators around the world to allow those who live in countries where mobile data is expensive to have free access to websites for “news, employment, health, education and local information”.  Facebook’s hope is that by providing access to the internet, the residents of these countries will start to benefit from the creation of the internet.

However, not everyone thinks Free Basics will be so beneficial.  In fact, in the last few days, India telecom regulators decided to block Free Basics in order to preserve net neutrality.  But, the fight between Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, otherwise known as TRAI, has been going on for about a year.  In December 2015, TRAI suspended Free Basics amidst protests that it violated net neutrality rules.  While Free Basics is not the only provider of limited access internet in India, it received the most attention probably because Facebook spent nearly $45 million promoting Free Basics in an attempt to win public support.  Zuckerberg even wrote an op-ed piece in an attempt to win over India’s support. 

Zuckerberg’s plan has not worked.  Not only did India’s Telecom Authority ban Free Basics, they stated that “no service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content”.  Zuckerberg could not disagree more with TRAI’s ruling.  In fact, he has notoriously maintained that it would be impossible to offer access to all of the internet for free.  But, Zuckerberg also believes that we cannot end poverty without allowing those in poverty to have some access to the internet. 

Numerous studies confirm Zuckerberg’s fear, making it not so much a fear as a reality.  And this reality has a name, it is called the “Digital Divide”.  The Digital Divide is the name we have given to the growing gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who do not, usually the poor, the elderly and those who live in rural areas. 

There is no doubt that the Digital Divide can have an effect on a person’s ability to receive an education or obtain a job.  The Huffington Post wrote an article in 2010 detailing this problem by explaining that 80% of Fortune 500 companies only accept job applications online.  In this same article, it was noted that high schoolers who have access to the internet at home have graduation rates that are 6 to 8% higher than students who do not. 

Therefore, it seems Zuckerberg is correct in thinking that without universal access to the internet, we cannot put an end to poverty.  However, is Facebook’s Free Basics the right way to go about ending poverty?