By Jerri Ann Henry
For the millions of those around the globe that have never logged on to a computer or swiped an iPhone it must be a pretty incredible proposition to learn that a debate is raging about whether they should be allowed to access vital Internet services like communications, health care, news, education, job listings and yes, Facebook, if they can’t pay for it all on their own.
In India, the long running debate between Facebook and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has come to an end and the American tech giant’s Free Basics offering has been soundly rejected. It’s really no surprise when you consider the domestic and foreign-based forces aligned against Facebook’s zero-rating plan.
In April of last year, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation filed comments with India’s telecom regulators arguing that Facebook’s zero-rating plan was a short-term gain that wasn’t worth the long-term cost to the country. The Foundation explained that zero-rating is counter to its vision for “all of the people to have access to all of the Internet, all of the time.”
Like Sir Berners-Lee, other U.S. net neutrality activists have also directed their moral outrage, public relations expertise and funding to attack Facebook’s zero-rating initiatives both in India and the U.S.
With all of the high moral dudgeon being batted around, it is worthwhile to step back and look at what is fueling this worldwide uprising. Simply put, zero-rating is one side of a global race among U.S. based Internet companies to get the 5 billion eyeballs not yet online using their services as fast as possible. In other words, it is about business.
In this regard, the U.S. net neutrality priesthood is largely correct that Facebook’s Free Basics isn’t entirely altruistic – by not counting access to Facebook against a Free Basics users data allowance, Facebook gets first dibs on those eyeballs in a way that say, Google can’t.
But the effort to kill zero-rating is not entirely altruistic either. There’s something else at play as well: What’s good for Facebook is bad for another Silicon Valley company (cough, cough Google). Remember, if Facebook grabs those eyeballs first, Google is shut out from being the first entry point or gateway for billions of new Internet users. In fact, Free Basics doesn’t even offer Google as one of its zero-rated websites. Google for its part, is executing its own strategy, experimenting with delivering access through giant balloons and tiny satellites while littering the globe with sub-$30 smart phones running its Android software and pre-loaded with Google products and services.
An interesting analysis finds that the most vocal anti zero-rating “Internet elites” in the U.S. – academics, venture capitalists, and technology leaders – claim common cause with the global poor, and dismiss zero-rating plans like Free Basics as “malignant”, “walled gardens”, a violation of “free speech”, or even a “geniusly evil world domination scheme.”
These individuals also largely reside in the top median income zip codes in the U.S., communities in which the median income is on average 60 times that of the typical income in a country like India. “Walled gardens” indeed.
But a deeper analysis finds something even more interesting. Six of the twelve leading anti zero-rating activists have received funding from a Facebook competitor… Google! – either directly to them or through the organizations they represent.
This same cast of characters who argued that strong net neutrality rules are necessary to keep the U.S. Internet “free and open” so more Americans can get online are the ones now insisting that net neutrality’s “free and open” doesn’t really mean “free” or “open” for India’s disconnected. Instead, they argue that it’s better for the Internet if India’s impoverished and disconnected simply do without than transgress their Silicon Valley paymasters’ global ambitions.
Those caterwauling the loudest that offering anything less than full access to the Internet is “poor Internet for poor people” are being highly disingenuous. After all, ideological purity is easy when it costs you nothing. It’s akin to a debate among the well fed about whether the starving should be given soup that isn’t organically sourced.
So, the next time you hear the.net neutrality priesthood decry zero-rating, it might be helpful to think to yourself, to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, “let them eat code.”