Be Honest: You Hate Free Basics Because It’s Facebook

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Yes, it is true. You don’t like Free Basics simply because it is a Facebook initiative. You may feel the need to hide your anger behind flowery language or odd metaphors, but the reality is that you think Facebook is inherently evil and therefore anything it does must be evil. Especially if Mark Zuckerberg personally promotes it.
It’s okay if you admit your dislike. In fact, that’s what you should do. You will be much happier if you would just be honest with yourself, and with everyone else. Then we can debate Free Basics on it’s merits and challenges instead of your gut reactions.
“But wait,” you say, “I’m okay with Facebook, it’s just that Free Basics [insert argument here].”
Please, give your reasons in the comments. Tell us why Free Basics is the worst idea ever. Go on, I’ll wait.
Done? Good. Now that you’re ready to listen, read these three reasons why Free Basics is better than your scorn:

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1. Zero-Rated Services Are Not New
Way, way back in 2010, Facebook launched Facebook Zero in 45 countries globally, to give people free access to Facebook on feature phones. Did anyone complain? Nope, we all cheered for feature phone users.
Then in 2012, Wikipedia teamed up with Orange to offer Wikipedia Zero on smartphones in Uganda. This zero-rating of Wikipedia content was exactly the same as Facebook Zero, yet when I called out Wikipedia Zero as an empty gift, I was pilloried by commenters saying things like:
Why can’t we just pat the operator on the back for letting people get access for free. The whole thing is just sort of mind blowing. People are volunteering their knowledge on millions of subjects in hundreds of languages, and giant companies are volunteering their expensive tech to let anyone have access. Bravo.
Next Google jumped on the zero-rating bandwagon with Free Zone in the Philippines and South Africa, giving free access to Gmail, Google Search, and Google+. Did anyone care then? Nope. Not a single byte was raised in protest.
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2. Zero-Rating Works
Now why would mobile network operators zero-rate a website? Why would they forgo revenue and let subscribers access very popular websites for free, when they could charge for access instead?
Well, why does any business offer a free sample? To win new customers of course! And zero-rating is a proven way to get more people online, and paying for data services.
In the Philippines, Smart Communications said the half-million users who signed up for its zero-rated introductory service, spent 150% more on average per month than its other subscribers.
When Globe Telecom introduced Facebook Zero, data users on Globe’s network doubled, and the active prepaid mobile data subscriber base leapt from 14% to 25%. Even after their Facebook Zero promotion ended, users continued to join Globe’s network at a 2x rate of the pre-campaign baseline.
Facebook Zero not only increases the number of Internet users in the short run, but zero-rating Facebook, even for a limited time, causes a long-run increase in Internet adoption.
So if you actually want Internet adoption by the next billion, you can either have great free 2G for everyone dreams, keep dreaming Universal Service Funds will work, despite much evidence to the contrary, or accept that zero-rating works, especially zero-rating Facebook access.
3. Net Neutrality is a Red Herring
Over in India, there is much indignation that Free Basics violate net neutrality principles because mobile network operators could be prioritizing zero-rated content over other content. Now only the MNO technicians know if throttling is happening or not, but the concept of zero-rating is fully in line with net neutrality.
Zero-rating doesn’t involve content delivery speed, only what is charged for it. Zero-rating is the exact same concept as a business giving out a free sample to attract more customers.
For example, I personally bought most of you free drinks at ICT4Drinks meetups to entice you to put up with me and receive my emails. Those free drinks were usually limited to the happy hour list at the bar, yet that certainly didn’t stop you from ordering your own drinks or food, or going to other happy hours or restaurants.
Like that free drink, zero-rating doesn’t keep people inside a walled garden. People are free to buy airtime to access other sites. Likewise, other companies are free to set up zero-rating schemes with MNOs too. Facebook certainly isn’t the only company to get zero-rated services from MNOs.
Better yet, Facebook is actively trying to engage local partners to participate. They’ve opened up Free Basics to websites that meet their technical requirements, so others, not just Facebook, can benefit. Of course, we should ask questions about Free Basics, but it doesn’t mean we should dismiss out of hand.
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None of That Matters Because Facebook is Evil
Sadly, I know you remain unconvinced. I know you are reading this seething, and saying to yourself, “We must stop Facebook, because… because… It is evil!”
And that could be true. Certainly there are serious data privacy issues inherent with Facebook. It is sucking up all our data, and we feed it terabytes of new data daily. However, every website does it.
We should not single out Facebook for our angst (usually in a Facebook post), and yet let Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and even our own government and employers off the hook. Data is the new oil and we need to find a way we can all profit from development data.
But what really makes otherwise logical people hate Facebook so much, is that they are deeply jealous that Facebook is winning.
For a majority of people, Facebook is the Internet and we’ve known this for years. For most of us, that is a horrible thought. Yet it is also a hypocritical one, as many of us started out thinking AOL was the Internet.
It’s also okay. We should be very happy that a billion people visit Facebook every day. One sixth of the world is learning and exploring the Internet in a safe space, where their friends and family moderate links to the wild Internets of the world.
But don’t tell that to local Internet companies who are trying (and failing) to compete with American technology juggernauts like Facebook, Amazon, and now Netflix. They yell about the need for local technology skills, which is a valid concern. However, don’t let a single one complain about local content.
For as much as you hate on Facebook, it is 100% local content. Remember, Facebook doesn’t produce its own content, you do, each of us in our infinite local contexts.
If So, Then We Are Evil Too
Those of us in the international development context should be careful how hard we hate on Facebook and Free Basics. We may hold up our mission statements and say we are better, but are we really?
Every day, we give away free goods and services in communities around the world, usually only after recipients give us their personal data, just like Facebook. We do this to excite community members to buy these services on their own, just like Free Basics. Yet in giving away free products, we distort local markets and undercut local providers of similar products. And here we are accusing Facebook of doing the same.
In the end, Free Basics gets more people online – 6 million new users in 14 months in the Philippines. No ICT4D initiative has accomplished that, ever. So what if that benefits Facebook in the near term?
Stop hating the player and change the game.