The issues of net neutrality and online privacy have not been solved and a recent report from The Washington Post informs us about a new potential threat. Over the past few months Facebook has been holding secret meetings with officials from both The White House and select wireless carriers. The topic being discussed at these meetings is about Facebook’s Free Basics program, which seemingly provides free Internet to the poor in America. According to the report these meetings are being held in order for Facebook to manipulate their plans without incurring the wrath of regulators like the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has already spent time investigating other zero-rating programs like Free Basics. Zero-rating is a plan that gives some Internet service providers the ability to avoid data caps by working with wireless carriers to offer some basic services for free.
In reality though, what Free Basics actually does is create one version of the Internet for poor people. Through the program users will have access to Facebook’s Internet in an obvious bait-and-switch to gain more Facebook users. Those who choose to use Free Basics will be giving Facebook access to their personal and private data in exchange for access to the Internet. In the report from The Post a law professor from Harvard, Susan Crawford, said, “Zero-rating is pernicious, unfair and unnecessary.” This is not the first time that controversy has surrounded the Free Basics program. Soon after Facebook announced their program India placed a ban on its usage and in the following week Egypt issued a ban of their own. So far Facebook has been able to convince 49 countries to agree to their program. There is definitely a need for programs like this, as there are still millions of Americans who do not have access to the Internet. Aside from not having an instant connection to information, the lack of online access is also troubling as many services like crucial government services have moved to the Internet.
However, Facebook’s version of the Internet is not going to be the right solution to this problem. Not only would users be giving up their privacy to help increase Facebook’s ad revenue, they would also be at the mercy of Facebook’s decision to keep the program free. There is no guarantee that Facebook would not one day decide to charge the wireless carriers that participate in the program. Facebook has been smart in their approach as they have been working with smaller carriers rather than going after T-Mobile or AT&T, which allows them to more easily avoid the FCC. As Adam Clark Estes points out in the Gizmodo article, “the really terrifying thing about all this is the unchecked power of the Facebook lobby … it sounds like Facebook is holding discussions behind closed doors … to undermine regulators as well as challenge the very principles on which the internet was founded.” A few months ago Facebook admitted that it had used its algorithm to hide news from more conservative news outlets, and now it seems they’re poised to exert control over how information is disseminated.
Estes, Adam Clark. “Facebook’s Sneaky Plan to Rule Over America’s Internet Is Scary as Hell.” Gizmodo. N.p., 6 October 2016. Web. 7 October 2016.
Fung, Brian. “Facebook is talking to the White House about giving you ‘free’ Internet. Here’s why that may be controversial.” The Washington Post. N.p., 6 October 2016. Web. 7 October 2016.