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.