Im sure Mark Zuckerberg has noble intentions in democratising the web, but we should still be wary of private companies controlling the internets infrastructure
A rocket crashing into a satellite and cutting off the internet may sound somewhat like the start of an end-of-the-world blockbuster; surely such destruction, and lack of Wi-Fi, could only be a harbinger of doom?
Fortunately, the scenario that played out last week was slightly less portentous. A SpaceX rocket, part of Elon Musks fevered attempts to eventually colonise Mars, exploded on Thursday as part of a failed pre-launch test fire, destroying a Facebook-owned satellite in the process.
The satellite, which cost the company around 150m, was due to be used as part of Internet.org, a project designed to bring web connectivity to areas of the world with limited internet access. Free Basics, a program developed by Facebook with six internet service providers, is an onramp to the internet, designed to help those without the internet get online. Its latest iteration, in Nigeria, saw the launch of 85 free online services including healthcare offerings, job listings, education portals and, of course, Facebook itself.
So far so good, right? Well, kind of. Providing access to the internet is a noble cause, particularly in parts of the world where it is severely limited or even non-existent. But should this infrastructure belong to a private company like Facebook, or should it be state-owned and maintained? Far be it from me to question the true nature of CEO Mark Zuckerbergs philanthropy, but no matter how charitable a cause Facebook is championing, its primary aim is to make money often from monetising its users data.
Its not just an issue of infrastructure, either; the destruction of the satellite also raises important questions about net neutrality that internet service providers, be it Sky, BT, or Facebook, should enable equal access to all content and applications on the web without favouring any source over another. The narrative Facebook has given Internet.org is lofty and well-meaning enough it describes the difference a weather report could make for a farmer planting some crops, and talks of how free information could help a child without textbooks but look beyond the sleek website and humanitarian buzzwords and its a little more troubling.
Users of the service may be connected to the internet, but their browsing choices are severely limited the 85 services that are provided in Nigeria, for example, may be a good start for those getting to grips with the web, but are otherwise entirely inadequate. The whole point of the internet the joy of it, the endlessly radical possibilities that are part and parcel of it is that its open, that its neutral, that its users are free to say, do, and read almost anything they want on it.
Its not been without critics on this front, either; when Facebook attempted to launch the Free Basics initiative in India it met fierce opposition from net neutrality groups who felt that the entire internet should be accessible to users. Several campaigns were set up to lobby against the service, with one, Save the Internet (now the Internet Freedom Foundation), stating that one network provider should not have a competitive advantage for specific services.
Everybody should have an equal opportunity to use the sites and services they want, irrespective of which provider they use to connect to the internet, the campaign wrote in its mission statement. Evidently Indian regulators agreed: Free Basics was blocked in February until Facebook could provide more details about the terms of the service.
Theres obviously no immediate need to panic its not like Zuckerberg is holed up in a den somewhere laughing maniacally about his omnipotent control of the internet. State-controlled infrastructure isnt always safe or reliable either earlier this year, for example, the internet was effectively switched off in Iraq to prevent teenagers from cheating on their exams, and the internet is widely censored in countries such as China and North Korea. This, clearly, is not a favourable outcome.
But if were slightly more cynical about the whole endeavour, its not hard to see why Facebook might be so keen to provide these services beyond its possibly genuine desire to create a more connected world. Facebooks user base has reached near saturation point in the US and Europe, making countries such as Nigeria and India potential goldmines when it comes to new sign-ups. More users, and more user data, benefit Facebook in one extremely simple way financially.
Like it or not, this financial consideration is a significant factor in the way that the company both provides its services and limits access to others. Free and open access to information is a right and privately held companies should not be the ones who decide how, where, and to whom that right is bestowed.