Facebook is learning a valuable lesson: Giving away Internet access is hard. Making a business out of giving a little bit away and then charging for more is even harder.
Internet.org, Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to offer free Internet to the developing world, has always been a commercial affair cloaked in high-mindedness. If there was any doubt about that, it’s become even clearer in Facebook’s response to Indian net-neutrality supporters who complain that its walled-garden approach threatens the open Internet in their country.
On Monday, the company announced that it will open up the Internet.org app to developers, presumably so anyone can make their sites and services available through the Internet.org “platform.” Facebook hopes that will be enough to appease the critics.
All that makes Internet.org an “open platform” that’s not really very open at all. It allows for just enough Internet to give people a taste. The idea: Once hooked, these users will gladly pay for broader access. As a calculated business move, it makes some sense. But it doesn’t exactly make for a pure humanitarian play.
Facebook itself even acknowledges that.
Endangered: The Open Internet In India?
Facebook has a complicated dance with Internet.org. It needs to dangle just enough Internet access and services to keep users interested, and enough motivation for partners and network providers to stick around, while simultaneously fending off detractors.
The latter is no easy feat. Internet.org distills the available online world down to only a few dozen basic services, so far deployed in just nine regions. Perhaps Facebook thought these areas would just happily accept these crumbs, since they’re free for developing markets with fewer alternatives. But on the contrary, that makes for even more scrutiny.
When Facebook prioritizes some sites over others, or artificially limits free access to information, that has larger implications in areas where few other pipelines of communication exist. That’s a nightmare scenario for net-neutrality advocates, who believe in an open Internet and denounce schemes that confer preferential treatment on some sites over others. The concern came to a head in India, after Internet.org launched there last February.
The Huffington Post reported that Cleartrip, NDTV, Newshunt and the Times Group have all backed away from the Facebook project. “The Times Group will be pulling out TimesJobs and Maharashtra Times from Internet.org,” the site wrote last month, “and has committed to withdraw from internet.org if its direct competitors—India Today, NDTV, IBNLive, NewsHunt, and BBC—also pull out.”
NDTV is committed to net neutrality and is therefore exiting, and will not be a part of, Facebook's http://t.co/r3IZLs9qEJ initiative.
— Prannoy Roy (@PrannoyRoyNDTV) April 15, 2015
Interesting New Developments
Apparently in response to the criticism, Facebook will let outside developers make their sites and services available to Internet.org—though the company says that the move was always in the cards.
“The debate here certainly accelerated our plans,” Chris Daniels, Facebook’s vice president of product for Internet.org, told Scroll.in, an independent politics and culture blog based in India. “The debate also gave us an opportunity to go to all the constituents of the debate and hear how they see Internet.org, the benefits they see from it and the concerns people have about it.”
In a video, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg clarified a bit more:
When people use free basic services, more of them then decide to pay to access the broader Internet, and this enables operators to keep offering the basic services for free. It’s not sustainable to offer the whole Internet for free, though. It costs tens of billions of dollars a year to run the Internet, and no operator could afford this if everything were free. But it is sustainable to build free basic services that are simpler, use less data, and work on all low-end phones.
But critics worry that Facebook is effectively fashioning itself into a gatekeeper of what users can and cannot access for free. To address this head on, the company will “offer services through Internet.org in a way that’s more transparent and inclusive,” Zuckerberg wrote in the official blog post.
The company contends that acceptance won’t be arbitrarily decided by Facebook. It will hinge on adherence to a few fundamental guidelines: Developers should encourage people to explore the larger Internet by linking to outside sites, develop a simpler or stripped-down version as a free basic service (that networks can more easily support), and conform to technical requirements that allow “zero rating” (that is, free carriage) and other tactics for minimizing data load, cost and network effects.
At the very least, the company does seem more transparent, making no bones about where it sees its greatest priority. And it’s not with end users.
The Complexities Of A Freemium Internet
Internet.org “has to work for operators in the long-term,” Facebook’s Daniels said in the Scroll.in interview. He continued:
What we believe though is that giving consumers more choice will make them experience some of these basic services that are valuable to them and then they can go on to explore the broader Internet. When they do that, they will pay for the data, and that does work for the operator.
Indeed it does. Facebook needs to make sure carriers get something out of the arrangement, because they’re the ones footing the bill for service. The system falls apart without those networks—at least for the foreseeable future. Facebook has been exploring other tactics, including beaming connectivity from drones and satellites, likely so it can bring Internet.org to remote regions. But for now, carriers are still key.
Therein lies the freemium model, which wouldn’t work if users had unfettered Internet access from the beginning.
But Facebook is the one with the most to gain, if it can pull off this intricate balancing act. Because the more people it can connect, with either free or paid services, the larger its pool of potential users, which has been its real goal all along.
Lead photo/screenshot courtesy of Facebook