February 16, 2016
A highly publicized international initiative of Facebook is its “Free Basics” program. Although that program is generally characterized as an effort to expand Internet access to more people in the developing world, the government of India recently blocked the project, claiming that it violated that country’s “Net neutrality” policy. This interaction between Facebook and the Indian government highlights the complex challenges associated with attempts around the world to “bridge the Digital Divide” to bring Internet access to the least affluent people.
Through partnerships with telecommunications companies in the developing world, Facebook created “Free Basics” as a method to provide Internet access to more people. This program provides users with access to certain Internet content at no charge. Much of that content offers useful and important information associated with health, education, and economic opportunities.
Content made available through “Free Basics” also, however, includes access to the Facebook social media platform. After review, the government of India concluded that “Free Basics” violates the country’s Net neutrality policy, which prohibits Internet access systems and pricing policies that offer competitive advantages to some content and disadvantages to other content. Under the principles of Net neutrality, Internet content access should be provided on a neutral basis.
Upon first review, the action of the Indian government seems to be somewhat unreasonable. By providing a mechanism to enable Internet users to access certain important content at no charge, the program seems to make important and useful Internet content more readily accessible to less affluent users.
Some observers have, however, correctly noted that the “Free Basics” approach does not provide the most direct method to expand Internet access to less affluent people to bridge the Digital Divide. These observers suggest that efforts to bridge the Digital Divide should focus on projects that expand the public Internet access facilities infrastructure, instead of making distinctions among forms of Internet content.
A variety of parties have noted that Facebook is currently engaged in other initiatives in the developing world that are likely to have a greater long-term impact on Internet accessibility than will “Free Basics.” For example, Facebook’s “Express Wi-Fi” program in India and other countries assists local entrepreneurs to create, operate, and maintain public Wi-Fi hotspots. Other companies are presently engaged in similar initiatives in India and other countries, such as Google’s program with Indian Railways to install hundreds of public Wi-Fi hotspots on trains and in railway stations throughout India.
The discussion associated with India’s action against “Free Basics” is helping to clarify the key principles associated with both Net neutrality and bridging the Digital Divide. As the government of India has determined, it is not necessary to treat different forms of Internet content differently in order to expand Internet access and begin to bridge the Digital Divide. Instead, the most direct and effective method to expand the reach of Internet access is to develop, promote, and facilitate programs that build, operate, and maintain additional free public Internet access points.
The challenge of bridging the Digital Divide is not primarily a content issue. Instead it is a facilities and network issue. To bring Internet access to more people, there is a need for a more extensive network of public Internet gateways. That need will not be addressed through content-focused solutions.