Facebook's Free Basics in the U.S.: The good, the bad and the controversial

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Facebook wants to connect the world, but it has been neglecting one very underserved country -- the U.S.

Ok, the U.S. isn't exactly underserved, but parts of it are less connected than others. And to those parts, Facebook wants to bring its Free Basics service. Though the service sounds great on the outside, there are some definite concerns about it. 

In IT Blogwatch, we watch our news feed. 

So what exactly is going on? Steven Musil has the background:

Facebook may have a new country in its sights for its controversial free-internet plan...The social media giant is in talks with U.S. government officials and wireless carriers about bringing its Free Basics service to millions of people in the U.S....The company is reportedly moving cautiously on the initiative to avoid the regulatory scrutiny that derailed the project in India earlier this year.

OK, great. And what precisely is Free Basics? And what happened in India? Jon Brodkin has some more details:

Free Basics...provides access to a variety of websites -- including Facebook and Facebook Messenger -- without counting against customers' data caps.
Free Basics is already available...in more than 40 countries, most of which are in Africa...Facebook says it has connected more than 25 million people. The service includes a mix of general Web browsing and more crucial services like job listings and access to medical information...Free Basics was available in India until that country banned it in its new neutrality rules.

Ah, now I think I am starting to understand why it is controversial. What are the net neutrality concerns? Saqib Shah fills us in:

Free Basics...allows users to access specific sites...via a free mobile app without draining their data...[Facebook's] aim is to target low-income Americans and those located in rural areas that do not have access to high-speed internet.
Facebook wants to divert the attention from its zero-rating app and focus on the benefits of the program for Americans in underserved locations. The company likely fears the ire of consumer advocates who argue that zero-rating...goes against net neutrality principles...In June, around 100,000 internet advocates sent letters to the...FCC urging it to cover zero-rating under its net neutrality guidelines. The agency has not yet decided on whether it will take action.

Are there any other concerns with this program? Shawn Knight outlines another:

Others are concerned about long-term implications...For example, what would happen if Facebook down the road decides to charge carriers for...participation? It could also give participating...carriers an advantage as they’re likely to have a better shot at converting Free Basics users into paying customers versus a provider that isn’t participating in the program.

So what do people think about all this? Aral Balkan, for one, has a very strong opinion:

“I wouldn’t call it philanthropy, I would call it colonialism.” -- yours truly on Facebook’s “Free Basics.”

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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