Facebook wants to bring its controversial “Free Basics” broadband service to the United States, but is worried about backlash from net neutrality advocates. Under Facebook’s zero rated service, wireless customers get free access to a rotating crop of content and services curated by Facebook. It’s sort of the modern version of 1990s AOL, except Facebook says it wants to offer it as a way to help bridge the digital divide.
The problem? Critics say the service, now available in 49 countries, gives Facebook too much power and dismantles the idea of an open-internet under the false flag of altruism.
Facebook ran into a brick wall recently when India banned the service and all other zero rated efforts, saying they eroded consumer choice, and distorted the playing field in favor of large companies.
Here in the States however the FCC has seen fit to avoid banning the practice of zero rating. The result? ISPs like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast now all give their own content preferential treatment thanks to usage caps that only apply to competitors’ services. And companies like Sprint and T-Mobile have begun throttling games, videos and music on so-called “unlimited” connections unless users pony up considerably more money.
Net neutrality advocates have pressured the FCC to act, but so far the agency appears in no rush to discourage these behaviors.
Enter Facebook, which has been pushing the FCC to let it bring its own zero rates service to the States, but is nervous about the kind of activist backlash that killed the program in India. As such the report says Facebook is avoiding partnering with larger carriers, which would only embolden perceptions that these efforts benefit the biggest players. And it’s debating how best to frame the program so it doesn’t set off alarm bells among those worried about protecting net neutrality:
But the idea to bring Free Basics to the United States is likely to rekindle a long-running debate about the future of the Internet. On one side are those who view services such as Facebook’s as a critical tool in connecting underserved populations to the Internet, in some cases for the first time. On the other side are those who argue that exempting services from data caps creates a multitiered playing field that favors businesses with the expertise and budgets to participate in such programs.
Many have argued (including Mozilla) that if Facebook truly wants to help bring the internet to the poor, it should just fund projects that bring the actual internet to the poor — not a bastardized version of the internet built by Facebook with an eye on inevitably bolstering the platform’s global ad revenues.