Mark Zuckerberg is not a man used to failure. He has built a $600-billion empire, buying up or crushing most would-be competitors and brushing regulators aside. When, in 2015, he personally headed up an effort – first called internet.org, then “Free Basics” – to help 3.5 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to the internet get connected, he might have expected praise for what he framed as philanthropy. The service would offer free unlimited access to a selection of hand-picked websites to people in India and countries across Asia, South America and Africa – getting more people online while, incidentally, making Facebook the controllers of the front page of the internet for these new users.
The praise did not come. Facebook was accused of “digital colonialism”, and of creating “poor internet for poor people”. There were even street protests against Free Basics in India, the country Zuckerberg had visited to promote the initiative. As political pressure mounted, in 2016 Free Basics was effectively outlawed by Indian regulators. The debacle was for a time described as “Facebook’s biggest setback”. If you only look at the headlines, Free Basics – and Facebook’s mission to connect the world – all but disappeared after that. But the reality of what happened next is very different.
“The project kept expanding – albeit much more discreetly,” explains Dr Toussaint Nothias, director of research at the Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab. “At the end of 2015, Facebook reported that Free Basics was available in 30 countries. Today, they say it’s available in ‘more than 55 countries’. In Africa [alone], I found that it’s available in 29 countries.”
Working far more quietly than before, Facebook has spearheaded efforts across the globe to connect people to the internet – working on technology, software, business models and more. The company refined Free Basics to give it less control over which sites users could access, and in May 2020 launched a successor, Discover, which allows users a daily allowance of data they can use to access any website.
Facebook has also helped lay thousands of kilometres of fibre-optic cable, assisted with the development and installation of wireless technology, supported the establishment of internet cafés, trialed a solar-powered drone codenamed Aquila to help relay internet signals, and got involved in the wildly ambitious 2Africa project to build a whole new series of subsea cables connecting the continent.
“We are not dabblers. We are fully committed and we’re playing at Facebook scale,” says Dan Rabinovitsj, who since 2018 has worked as Facebook’s vice president of connectivity, leading a 300-strong team focused on Facebook’s efforts in these areas.
“Our goal is to get more people online to a faster internet. Both of those things are really important,” he says. “At a very, very basic level, the reason why Facebook cares about connectivity – let’s just say there’s a whole bunch of people in my team, myself included, who are very motivated by the mission of just getting more people online.”
“That’s how people find jobs. It’s how you get educated. The Covid crisis has just highlighted that in a way that we could not have imagined six months ago.”
A cluster of Facebook’s Terragraph 60 GHz internet base station transmitters
Rabinovitsj’s enthusiasm shines through as he speaks, but few people would believe Facebook is being entirely altruistic. Rabinovitsj says Facebook is happy to acknowledge connectivity is good for its business: the company wants more people on the internet, so then it can compete with other services to bring them to its sites and apps. That is the win. Facebook doesn’t pay any telecoms companies it works with, and claims it tries to find sustainable business models for each programme.
That isn’t curtailing the scale of the ambition, though: 2Africa, whose aim is surrounding the whole African continentwith undersea fibre-optic cables, is an infrastructural feat that in usual circumstances would be considered the exclusive domain of governments.
“2Africa is one of the most exciting things that I’ve seen in a long-time… it’s huge,” Rabinovitsj says. “This will have decades of impact. We’re accelerating a lot of what I would call really overdue infrastructure deployment for an entire continent.”
The scale of Facebook’s programmes, and their reach across dozens of countries, is for some, alarming. While it might seem odd to complain about free or cheap internet, concerns range from fears on misinformation, to worries that Facebook’s intervention could stifle potential local challengers, to suspicions about what the company might do with browsing data – something on which Facebook has hardly earned a glowing reputation.
“In my opinion, the ongoing expansion of the project has not received the scrutiny it deserves,” says Nothias. “Increasing connectivity, in general, benefits Facebook’s products. Facebook is pretty transparent about this.”
“Most importantly, for Free Basics users, Facebook becomes the homepage of the Internet. Free Basics builds brand loyalty among users. It contributes to Facebook’s dominant position in emerging markets with tremendous demographic growth.”
“Facebook is adamant that Free Basics is not a data extraction exercise – on the basis that information is aggregated or de-identified. But aggregated data is still valuable.”
Back in 2016, similar concerns were enough to trigger protests in India, and mobilise civil society groups around the world. So, what’s happened since for the outcry to be so muted? There’s several things going on, says Dr Anri van der Spuy, a senior associate at Research ICT Africa, a policy and regulation think-tank.
“In a lot of these contexts, people have to decide between buying a loaf of bread for their children or meal a day, and buying data,” she says. “Yes, [Facebook’s programme] is not perfect internet – [but] you can’t be highbrow about this. If people want to go on social media, they want to go on social media.”
A shopkeeper in Kenya, whose store also provides a Facebook Express Wi-Fi point
This is hardly the only reason backlash has been muted. Activists on the African continent are often battling internet shutdowns, connectivity and other issues – and also struggle to make headlines in the western media even more than their counterparts in India. And there’s an additional complication: many of the African civil society groups are themselves funded by Facebook.
“They have so many projects at the moment,” van der Spuy remarks. “Theyre funding so many civil society people, including people that you wouldn’t think of, and they fund them to go to conferences and things. There’s a lot of soft and hard lobbying on the continent.”
Such has been Facebook’s success with its new, quieter approach that the company has – without fanfare – even returned to India with an initiative to install public Wi-Fi hotspots, called Express Wi-Fi.
“We’ve been able to work with the local partners who are providing internet service in the most challenged areas,” says Facebook’s Rabinovitsj. “Some of these places are really large slums in and around large urban centres and typically the disposable income is less than a few dollars a month for households.”
“We are able to, with our partners, come up with a sustainable model that provides internet access for [those] families.”
Today, the internet is estimated to have around four billion users. More than two billion of them use Facebook products. But growth is slowing, and the social network has its eyes firmly set on the three billion people without a connection as their hope for the future. “I think they’re probably doing it for business reasons and that’s fine,” concludes Anri van der Spuy. “But then… be honest about it.”
Update 18.08.2020 09.15GMT: Toussaint Nothias’s title has been updated. He is now Director of Research at the Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab, not a Lecturer in African Studies.