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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Columns

Facebook’s internet application does more than get people online


Facebook’s Free Basics application, formerly known as Internet.org, is the product of a partnership with six other companies. The app has the vision of a nonprofit campaign, and Facebook has lined the product’s offerings with a lot of altruistic rhetoric.

Recently, Zuckerberg stated that Internet.org has helped 40 million people get online.

In a nutshell, the application is meant to provide access to select websites for free in countries where there is a lack of broadband infrastructure. Through the use of Facebook’s unmanned solar-powered drone, the Aquila, the company plans to use infrared laser beams to transmit data from the sky to earth in the next couple of years.

The Federal Aviation Administration has already begun to lay the groundwork for regulating commercial unmanned aircrafts. Facebook would have to adhere to these policies in the U.S.

But what are the legal parameters for commercial drone usage in Zambia, the first country where the services were made available? There aren’t many and they are all pretty broad and qualitative. In fact, a lot of the 50-plus countries where Free Basics is available have a similar lack of scope concerning drone laws — if they have any laws pertaining to unmanned aircrafts at all.

While internet connectivity for underdeveloped countries sounds like a laudable endeavor, besides the lack of airspace regulation these countries have another major factor in common: low economic barriers to entry.

U.S. fares well when it comes to the percentage of the population with available Internet access, but the country only accounts for under 10 percent of the world’s users. There are large, growing populations that aren’t factored into that statistic in the first place.

For a company like Facebook, or even Google’s similar Project Loon, the populations represent a mass market waiting to be reached.

There are only a handful of preselected websites that are accessible under the platform, and the whole scheme is an anti-competitive market penetration strategy. The concentration of power in the World Wide Web will continue to be in Facebook’s grip because few companies have the capital to invest in this type of pervasive charity.

In addition, Facebook has continually handed over data to the government upon request. This is a frightening idea to think about, considering the company’s newfound presence in so many authoritarian governments. There is also Free Basics’ reliance upon partially state-owned telecommunication companies to act as the application’s conduits such as Movicel, Myanmar Posts and TelecommunicationsSafaricom and more.

India has already kicked Free Basics out of the country, citing the platform’s discriminatory access to content as a major reason. Not only is this service’s proliferation into untapped markets a serious concern for net neutrality, there are serious implications that the use of these services might have in countries with oppressed populations.

Facebook and its partners would either have to provide unmitigated access to all web content or stop the habit of turning in collected user data to civic institutions for me to even begin to give merit to Free Basics as a public service-spirited undertaking.

Opinion columnist Nicholas Bell is an MBA graduate student and can be reached at [email protected]

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