Facebook and the myth of free internet
Almost a year ago, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) Chairman Sunil Kanti Bose made the comment that an overwhelming 80% of internet users in Bangladesh are on the social networking site Facebook. For a lot of these cases, Facebook remains the staple in terms of daily internet usage. This rapid proliferation of a social media platform in not only urban spaces but in many rural spaces of the country has been truly remarkable. The country has been gripped by the buzzword 'Digital Bangladesh' for the past seven years, not least because of the incessant use of it in political rhetoric by the ruling party.
The hawks of Silicon Valley have been viewing the technological race in Third World countries with keen interest. In the age of multicultural diversity and multicultural exploitation, giant internet companies have pushed hard on these very liberal values to usher in an era of idealist futurism, wherein the internet will become the modern day version of a great equaliser to capitalism's destructive inequality—it is prophesised that it will bring about technological equality, and that through this global connectivity, millions of people will be able to pull themselves out of poverty. Some of the things that are advertised most include, but are not limited to, the great reach of the internet, especially social media, to bring focus to issues to people who might not otherwise have known about (including issues of human rights, economic criminality, racism etc), the idea of owning your own internet business, which greatly reduces the limitations of communication and, of course, the ability to interact with people through a screen in newer and more instantaneously abrupt ways (what is Snapchat, really?). These issues are not inaccurate. We are connected more, and we are able to take on human rights issues, to fundraise and to also build a thriving online business model.
When the traditional Marxists and other left-leaning social thinkers apprehended the phenomenal growth of the internet, they immediately rested all their hopes of an overthrow of capitalism on the digital world. Their logic was that property rights as they exist right now and which really form the base of a capitalist system, will not function as well when it comes to the internet. Who can effectively stop the digital sharing of photos and videos and information and in an age where assets and information are increasingly becoming synonymous, it could only signal the end of property-based economic relations and the beginning of a communal existence on the internet.
These lofty hopes, like those held before the internet as well, have not come to fruition yet and it is unlikely that they ever will. One of the biggest reasons for this is the rise of yet another ingenious property innovation which is the ownership of internet domains. If we take a closer look at the activity of internet giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube, majority of the content that is available on this site is not directly created by the social media firms themselves. What they have created is a platform on which the consumers become labourers for their own pleasure. This penetration of capital into spaces of leisure is unprecedented in the global history of capitalism which started almost 300 years ago in Western Europe. However, if we look at websites such as Uber, AirBnB, or, closer to home, Bikroy, it follows the same trajectory. Uber, the biggest taxi firm does not own a single car, AirBnB, the largest renter of apartments, does not own a single house. Bikroy, a large website for buying and selling various goods, does not have its own inventory. And yet, Facebook made upwards of a billion dollars in profit the last year. Come whatever may, Facebook has realised its potential to make billions of dollars by simply existing as a portal. Therefore, their logical goal as a profit-seeking corporation has to be to expand their reach. Enter: Internet.org.
Internet.org includes several different operations that work within the main headline mission of connecting the whole world together. What is implied in this is that Facebook will indeed be the leading platform with which this connection will be established. We might be thinking that surely there can't be any harm in this. If Facebook does promise this and goes through with this promise then it is only justified that they rake in the kinds of profit that they are. What is a few billion dollars, if millions of people can be lifted out of poverty?
The issue that must be regarded seriously in this case is the fact that Free Basics, the operating name of the free internet program, which provides internet free of cost to rural areas, only allows for a handful of sites that can be accessed through the service. Let us consider Free Basics in Bangladesh. Firstly, you will require a smartphone to download the application and then also have either a GP or Robi SIM card to be able to access the Free Basics services. Among them, you can access Facebook (of course), Accu Weather, BBC, Cricinfo and OLX Buy and Sell. Other than that, NGO sites such as Girl Effect can also be accessed. With this proposal, Facebook signed a multi-million dollar deal that was wholeheartedly supported by the government. If Facebook does indeed want to lift people out of poverty, how are these sites going to actualise that? Unless they plan on creating a colony of weather reporters, in which case they are on the right track.
There is little here to suggest that anything like the propaganda Facebook is spreading will ever come to fruition. Unless Facebook expects every villager to be in possession of a smartphone they cannot lift themselves out of poverty. Not only because of the limited number of sites, but also because it is unclear how or who with they will do business, or any other activity that might lift them out of poverty. Only in a few rare cases has this happened and Facebook has made sure to publicise those broadly. By and large, this is a nothing scheme that will earn them billions. If they were really interested in connecting the world then they would start small and allow access to pages that are properly translatable in the local language and that also have connections to government sites and sites for banks etc.
But there is a bigger, worldwide worry about Facebook's actions. And this debate centres on net neutrality. That Facebook is providing these websites free of cost prices out competing internet providers who might otherwise have been able to provide a larger selection of websites. This move then consolidates Facebook's already enormous popularity while at the same time redirecting advertisements to themselves from ad providers who would rather market with those who have the most reach. Say goodbye to Google. This isn't just a gesture borne out of compassion and desire to connect the world. It is a very shrewd business move masked behind a veneer of charity that will attempt to monopolise the internet. India has already blocked Free Basics once and is now prepared to do it again. And with good reason, as it is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and it envisages a time in the not too distant future that Facebook might just be able to influence the masses more than the government should Free Basics be allowed inside (whether that is a good thing given their current fundamentalist government is another debate entirely). What we must resist is this corporate overtaking of Third World countries by a corporation born and bred in the imperialist West. The Bangladeshi government, no matter what values it adheres to, must critically look at what Facebook is trying to do before moving forward.
The writer is a student of anthropology and sociology at Knox College.