Is Facebook Zero the Future of Public Internet Access?

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Access to information is both empowerment and development. When two thirds of the world’s poor still lack access to the Internet, but three fourths have a mobile phone, it makes sense to try to capitalize on mobile technology in order to increase access and connectivity.
Enter Facebook Zero
The advantage of Facebook Zero is in the name; by waiving regular data charges, Facebook Zero is “zero rate” access to the world’s most popular social media site, which has great benefits for everyone. Facebook cleverly tapped into a new clientele: the billions of poor people in the developing world who already own mobile phones but cannot fork out large sums for internet services.
According to Facebook, the launch of the modified site was an effort to “make the world more open and connected” – precisely the same goal of those concerned with pubic access options in development. On the Asian continent, for example, roughly 6% of the continental population is on Facebook, a figure that is attributable to the cost barriers associated with Facebook’s data charges, as well as general costs to internet subscriptions.

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Does Facebook Zero Increase Internet Access?
Full Facebook usage (vs. Facebook Zero) on the African continent doubled every seven months when it first appeared, with the largest number of Facebook users in Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria, respectively. Some of the highest Facebook growth rates were seen in the Central African Republic and Somalia, countries that are often “off the grid” and should be on it, precisely because we want them to be aware of their serious governance and development challenges.
But can we really credit Facebook Zero for an increase in Internet access amongst the poor? While we do not have usage rates for Facebook Zero, there is no denying that Facebook is empowerment.
For many of the poor, Facebook is the face of the Internet, and a source for gathering information and news. Facebook is also a vehicle for voicing concerns and finding like-minded individuals (case in point: the Arab Spring). Interestingly enough, in Ghana, the Electoral Commission posted election results to Facebook, rather than to their own webpage, because they acknowledged that Ghanians go to Facebook to obtain their information.
Is Facebook Zero A Community Space?
Physical access points, like Telecentres and Cyber Cafes, serve as hubs of Internet access, but also, and equally as important, as community spaces. Sure, as a social media platform, Facebook facilitates social interaction between its users, but there is something to be said about the value of face-to-face communication. If Facebook Zero is the future of public community spaces, we may be looking at a future with less physical interaction, which, many, would consider a grave loss.
Facebook Zero is an Inspiration
There are already signs that Facebook Zero has generated a sustainable model for Internet connectivity. The usage of Facebook Zero has given the poor a stronger reason to want access to regular, broadband Facebook.com, so that they may view status updates and photos. Already Facebook Zero has garnered competition, like Google’s “Free Zone” and Wikipedia Zero, and we can be optimistic that, with time, this competition drives up the quality and options of Internet access for the poor.
Above all else, Facebook Zero’s private ownership is an attractive model of public access because it bypasses regulations and rules established by governments. Authoritative leaders often desire to restrict the flow of information and tech freedoms to the poor. But if we believe that the poor have a right to knowing what’s going on in their communities, their country, the world, then access to Facebook Zero is surely a great starting point.
Maria Andersen is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), focusing on international economics & African development