Nothing Is Free, Not Even Facebook Free Basics

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has given Facebook’s Free Basics (a cutely rebranded a big thumbs-down, according to reports. The opposition from all quarters led to the decision by local regulators. “This can prove to be risky in the medium to long term as the knowledge and outlook of those users would be shaped only by the information made available through those select offerings,” the agency wrote. Today in a report, The New York Times wrote, “Facebook spent millions of dollars on advertising to promote its position and ran special banners in the news feeds of Indian users urging them to petition the government to allow Free Basics.” It is a setback for Mark Zuckerberg and the company, which has been working hard to win over India.

Much of the opposition to Facebook’s Basics has been framed around the net neutrality debate. But to me the problem is rooted in the idea of Data Darwinism, where data owners shape the narrative and make decisions that leave millions out of control of their own destiny.

My opposition to is not recent: Ever since it was announced, I have denounced its duplicitous name. Facebook still calls its efforts across most of the world and paints it as a not-for-profit effort. I disagree with two points:

  • isn’t about the internet, so Facebook should stop calling it as such and call it what it is: Facebook Free (with strings attached). To call it is actually the first sin of this whole debacle.
  • Facebook Free Basics isn’t a charity. People will pay for it with their data. It is  a way for Facebook to gather more attention and sell services and advertising to those who get Facebook’s Free Basics.

Maybe I’m suspicious because my family has told me their personal story of the British Raj or maybe because I have read books that over and again detail how a commercial spearhead (The East India Company) came bearing gifts and then became a symbol of British imperialism. Regardless, I am suspicious of any for-profit company arguing its good intentions and its free gifts. Nothing — and I do mean nothing — in this life is free. You always pay a price.

It is hard to tell whether money or politics come first, but either way they are intertwined. During industrialization, the two key commodities for economic growth were labor and actual commodities. The British Empire became dominant because it mastered mass production and consumption as well as controlling commodities. And it started with The East India Company. The subjugation of the Indian subcontinent was part of industrialization. In the 20th century, petroleum shaped the political narrative; in this new century, “attention” shapes politics. That is why we have to look at this issue of from a cultural standpoint.

In our post-internet age, labor and commodities have been replaced by attention and connectivity. By controlling these, Facebook in many ways has its algorithm decide what is important in the future. I am positive that its role as a gatekeeper of information will cause much deeper problems in the long term.

In a more draconian scenario, it isn’t hard to imagine Facebook helping sway the outcome of elections. In the U.S., election-spending and Facebook are a potent mix, as we are made aware every day. In emerging economies, where money has an outsize influence on election results, can Facebook stand up and say no to dollars? Can it say no to money — anyone’s money, for that matter — if its overall growth starts to stall?

Co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg or other senior executives have never discussed with me the responsibility and transparency of their algorithms from a social and cultural standpoint. What are the things he and Facebook won’t do? Will they open up access to everyone, including rivals, to offer services on their platform, and will they offer an equal, bidirectional exchange of data to one and all under the mandates of open source? Can they promise that they won’t use the information for targeting and advertising purposes?

Up until then, from my perspective, Free Basics/ is all about advertising and making money. Today and tomorrow, Facebook will make decisions based on how it makes or will make money. That is what for-profit corporations do.