For much of the year, Facebook has been at the center of a global net neutrality controversy regarding its Internet.org initiative. Internet.org provides developing nations free, limited access to certain services, provided they’re Facebook approved and not encrypted. Facebook is hungry to get in at the ground floor of an absolute explosion in developing nation ad revenue, but net neutrality critics have worried that giving so much control to one company sets a horrible precedent. It would, they argue, be far more helpful to simply deliver a subsidized version of the real Internet, encrypted warts and all.
Concerns about a single company creating an easily-tapped, AOL-esque version of the Internet aren’t particularly outlandish and, if you’ve studied history, are quite justified. Yet Facebook’s response to these concerns so far has been to claim critics are “extremists” who are hurting the poor with all of their pesky questions. And indeed, even here in Techdirt’s comment section, I’ll often see arguments that go something like this:
Why, oh why must you hate the poor? Isn’t a limited version of the Internet better than no Internet at all?
The problem is that’s a false, bullshit choice. Facebook isn’t operating in a vacuum; countless companies and individuals are working hard to bring the full Internet to the poorer corners of the developing world, whether its Google’s deployment of free Wi-Fi in India, or Microsoft’s experiments with white space broadband. The world is simply discussing the best approach. Suggesting that the health of these nations might be better off with solutions that provide access to the full, uncensored Internet isn’t depriving the poor of anything; it’s just a conversation that requires thinking beyond the end of your nose.
And it’s a little something Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the very thing Facebook’s been trying to bastardize, has been thinking a little about. When recently asked to comment on the recent Facebook fracas, Berners-Lee channeled Nancy Reagan and argued that it’s best to just say no:
“In the particular case of somebody who’s offering … something which is branded internet, it’s not internet, then you just say no. No it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something … [Only] giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards.”
Why must you hate the poor so, Tim Berners-Lee? Why? Isn’t lemonade with a little bit of dead otter in it better than no lemonade at all? Etc.
But as Facebook continues to try and defend its gated community world plan, company boss Mark Zuckerburg just keeps on pretending he can’t see the potential pitfalls of his dangerously centralized vision. Last week, Business Insider breathlessly declared that Zuckerburg “nailed” his latest defense of Internet.org at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit. How was said nailing accomplished? With an adorable little story about apples:
“If you want to sell apples and sell them to white men for a dollar and black women for $2, that is wrong and is rightfully banned,” he said. “And net neutrality is kind of like that. If an operator wants to advantage their own video program and not Netflix, for example, that is bad. It’s good that regulation protects against that. But if the person selling apples wants to donate some to a food bank for free, there’s never a law against that. It’s really hard to see how what we’re doing is hurting anyone.”
Is it really that hard, Mark? Nobody cares if you give away apples. Give away actual apples all you want. But as Mozilla and many others have complained, Facebook isn’t giving away apples (the Internet). It’s giving away what is, to follow this stupid metaphor further down nitwit lane, parts of sour-tasting, genetically-modified apples stamped with a giant Facebook logo. Not only that, accepting these not-really apples comes with plenty of apple-distribution strings: not only more power for Facebook, but more, uh, apple-watching power for your local government.
Ok, so that’s still stupid and overly complicated. Point being, if you really want to help, just give away some fucking apples. And while you’re at it, stop trying to dress up your attempts to corner the world’s apple…err…advertising market as selfless altruism. The thing is, Facebook is fairly sure most people won’t be smart enough to see the company’s real intentions here, and judging from many peoples’ response, the company is quite right. Indeed, Zuckerburg proceeds to argue that Facebook’s shitty version of the Internet is going to actually be great, because it will wind up with more people using the real Internet:
“If you ask these people, who didn’t grow up with a computer and have never used the internet, do you want to buy a data plan, their answer is going to be ‘Why?’ They actually have enough money to afford it, but they’re not sure why they would want it,” Zuckerberg says. “So, the answer to that requires a business model innovation, which is making the internet something where you can use some basic services that don’t consume a lot of bandwidth for free. Within a month, more than half of the people who get access to those services realize why the internet is valuable and become paying customers.”
Except forcing a new bastardized version of AOL down the throat of the developing world isn’t innovation, it’s regression. Especially for nations that live under tyrannical rule and desperately need not only access to a full, non-corporate sanctioned internet, but one that supports encryption and websites critical of government and Facebook. But Zuckerburg knows that once Facebook has developing nations hooked on its free, bastardized version of the Internet, most poor people will likely stick with it, not understanding why they need to pay for broader access. As a result, Facebook will have locked themselves into a long-term contract to be the all-powerful “not-quite Internet” nanny for decades to come.
So as Mr. Berners-Lee suggests: see the bigger picture here and just say no, kids. Just say no.