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Zuckerberg Defends Downsized Internet for Developing World

By John P. Mello Jr.
Dec 29, 2015 11:46 AM PT

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Monday defended his company's downsized version of the Internet, called "Free Basics," which is offered in developing nations around the world.

"In every society, there are certain basic services that are so important for people's wellbeing that we expect everyone to be able to access them freely," he wrote in the Times of India, citing public libraries, hospitals and schools as examples.

"That's why everyone also deserves access to free basic Internet services," Zuckerberg added.

Net Neutrality Trade-Off

Facebook launched Free Basics, a set of basic Internet services that is offered in more than 30 countries and has garnered some 15 million users over the last year, because everyone should have access to basic Internet services, he maintained.

However, the service has come under some criticism, especially in India, where last week the country's telecommunications industry regulator asked the mobile network set to partner with Facebook on Free Basics to put its efforts on hold.

Among the criticisms of Free Basics is that it stifles innovation by limiting choice, undermines net neutrality by favoring some content providers over others and confines users within a walled garden.

There is a trade-off between net neutrality and allowing more people to access the Internet, acknowledged Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research.

"There's no doubt the plan is non-neutral, but it does get more people online," he told TechNewsWorld.

"Facebook would argue that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, but the objection here is that many people's first experience with the Internet will be Facebook-flavored, which gives the company an unfair advantage," Dawson continued.

Marketing Initiative

Although Free Basics has introduced millions of new users to the Internet, doubts linger about Facebook's intentions.

"There's a suspicion that Facebook has ulterior motives," said Brian Blau, a research director at Gartner.

"They're in the business of making money," he told TechNewsWorld. "They'll have to do that to pay for this, and they haven't come out and said how that's going to work in the long term."

"My assumption with Mark Zuckerberg is everything he does is a marketing initiative," said John Carroll, a mass communications professor at Boston University.

"If there's some kind of side benefit for other people, that's fine with him," he told TechNewsWorld.

Facebook as Internet

Zuckerberg is all about collecting information and then selling it to marketers, Carroll noted.

"This is a market he's looking at -- the undeveloped world -- that he can gather up and do the same thing with them that he'd done with the other billion Facebook users," he said.

By creating a walled garden, Free Basics advances one of Zuckerberg's goals for Facebook. "One of Zuckerberg's objectives has long been for Facebook to be the Internet for people," Carroll noted.

"What he wants to do is preempt movement away from Facebook to other apps and other platforms and contain users as much as possible within the Facebook walls," he said.

"With Free Basics, he's going to bring in certain content providers that he picks and chooses. In that way, he creates the entire environment of digital media for all these people who wouldn't otherwise have access," Carroll continued.

Springboard to Wider Net

Free Basics is a springboard to the Internet for users, Zuckerberg argued.

"Half the people who use Free Basics to go online for the first time pay to access the full Internet within 30 days," he wrote.

There is one thing, though, that even Zuckerberg's critics would agree with him about.

"Internet access has become a critical differentiator in terms of societal development and competitiveness," Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, told TechNewsWorld.

It also can affect the lives of individuals.

"Lack of access to the Internet can have a negative impact on things people are trying to do to improve their lives in meaningful ways," Aaron Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, told TechNewsWorld.

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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