Facebook is leading a coalition of tech companies to bring free Internet to developing countries--and it's a noble goal, to be sure. But if the social network's CEO Mark Zuckerberg succeeds in his ambition to bring 2 to 3 billion people online, those newly connected Web surfers might be seeing Facebook's version of the Internet.
Facebook announced Thursday that Airtel subscribers in Zambia now have access to a new Internet.org app, which will connect those users to basic Internet services like Google Search, AccuWeather, Go Zambia Jobs, Facebook Messenger, and Facebook itself. The app is available on Android and the Web, and services are also accessible within the Facebook app for Android.
"With this app, people can browse a set of useful health, employment and local information services without data charges," Facebook product management director Guy Rosen said in a Thursday blog post. "By providing free basic services via the app, we hope to bring more people online and help them discover valuable services they might not have otherwise."
It's unclear at what point those services start using data--for instance, if you can navigate to any webpage using Google for free, or if anything beyond a simple search will start costing you money. On Facebook itself, you can browse your News Feed for free but will rack up data charges by downloading videos.
More than 85 percent of the world is blanketed with cellular coverage, yet only 30 percent of people have data plans. Zuckerberg said at this year's Mobile World Congress that Internet.org is an "on-ramp to the Internet," a way to show people why the Web is useful. Once you discover the benefits of connectivity, the next step is purchasing a data plan, which is why carriers around the globe are signing up to work with Facebook. But what if you can't afford a data plan? Well, then you'll just see a version of the Internet that Facebook allows you to see--and that version is Facebook-centric.
Airtel customers in Zambia will have access to a local job search portal, a women's rights app, Wikipedia, and an SMS-based HIV counseling platform, all for free, for the first time. Internet.org is clearly trying to do good. But those first-time Internet users won't have access to other social networks--or messaging services or photo-sharing apps--that aren't tied to Facebook, and that's problematic. Their view of the connected world will be a reflection of what Facebook wants them to see.
When Americans unbox their smartphones, we have access to any app and service available. We're paying for that privilege with a pricy data plan, but our first experience with the Internet offers endless options. In the end, we might pick Facebook as our social network of choice, but we don't have to. Internet.org is like a phone carrier who lets you make free calls, but only to a psychic hotline or 911. You couldn't make any phone calls before, so you should probably be grateful, but it feels wrong. Especially because the phone carrier is owned by the psychic.
Facebook competitors could join the Internet.org coalition, which counts Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia, and Qualcomm among its founding members, and work out a way for their services to be included in the Internet.org app. Or they could separately hammer out deals with carriers to offer their service to subscribers without data plans, which is what Twitter has done with a program called Twitter Access.
But the goal of Internet.org is to show people what they can gain by having a data plan, and to that end, it's been successful. Zuckerberg said in February that when Facebook worked with The Globe, a carrier in the Philippines, to offer basic services for free, the number of subscribers doubled.
"What we want to do next is have a year-long period to dive into this with folks to show that the model works," Zuckerberg said at the time. "And then we could come back here in a year or two and have a more programmatic way to work with carriers."
As Internet.org develops partnerships with carriers and builds out its roster of basic services, Facebook should keep in mind that its efforts will color how people see the Web--and with great power comes great responsibility.