Facebook has become what Microsoft used to be, a giant near-monopoly whose product is used widely enough to raise the spectre of world domination and spawn dozens of conspiracy theories. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg has begun to attract the kind of hatred that Bill Gates faced two decades ago before an image makeover that was an unintended consequence of his shift from software to philanthropy.

Last week, after Zuckerberg hosted Narendra Modi at Facebook’s headquarters, both modified their display pictures using a tricolour filter, prompting millions of Indians to do the same. A rumour soon took hold that doing this automatically caused a person to cast a vote in favour of Facebook’s controversial initiative internet.org, recently renamed Free Basics. It was a hoax, like the notion that an imminent change in Facebook’s revenue model is about to turn all your notifications public unless you paste a certain message as your status update. Or that Facebook will commercially use your photos and other private information unless you expressly forbid it by copying and pasting your refusal to conform. Unlike such obvious frauds, the one related to Free Basics was hard to decipher since it was first exposed by a hacker group, possibly in good faith, and subsequently carried by a number of prominent media outlets.

The net neutrality debate

The kerfuffle focused attention once more on internet.org, which received terrible press earlier this year during India’s  net neutrality debate. Net neutrality concerns the way service providers make websites available to customers. The enemies of net neutrality are content providers who do deals with ISPs to prioritise their own services over those of competitors and other unconnected websites. Such deals could turn the information superhighway into a bunch of differentiated fast and slow lanes. For instance, one might find YouTube loading swiftly while Wikipedia lags because YouTube paid your ISP for preferential access. I am all for net neutrality, but it’s unclear to me how Facebook’s internet.org violates its tenets.

Free Basics ties up with telecom service providers like Reliance to ensure customers can access selected websites without incurring data charges. Zuckerberg has touted it as a way to give digital have-nots a little access to the internet, and thus level the playing field somewhat, but critics view it as Facebook’s attempt to take over the Web and define it for its own benefit.The outspoken venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy went so far as to call internet.org “evil” while explaining away the initiative as a gambit in the battle against Google. Murthy argued that, since Facebook makes only about $9 per user per year while Google makes five times that much and because, “There's only so much you can squeeze out of the first world...India, with a billion people yet to get on the net is probably seen as the great white hope for the future of this stock.”

I disagree with Murthy’s view of internet.org as a fundamentally mercenary operation. For one thing, the figure of $9 per year per user disguises massive regional variations. Facebook makes almost no money from India despite having established its second-largest national user base here. The company earns about $30 a year from each American member while the comparable figure for India is a paltry 60 cents. Now, think of the space Free Basics inhabits, targeting relatively disenfranchised people in some of the world’s poorest nations, and serving them bare-bones sites largely deprived of images. I doubt if the organisations involved will recoup the cost of providing free data to these customers, leave alone make enough money to boost Facebook’s global revenues substantially.  It could be that Facebook and its six partners – Nokia, Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, and Qualcomm –  plan a low-cost Facebook Phone in the future that might prove more successful than previous Facebook phones.

Not such a big deal

If Murthy’s analysis of internet.org is overly harsh, Zuckerberg’s estimation of its impact is greatly exaggerated, and his vision of it as a purely beneficent endeavour difficult to swallow. Nobody’s going to take the charity bit seriously while Facebook is front and centre among the services offered. Zuckerberg should take lessons from Bill Gates on avoiding conflicts of interest in philanthropy.

My feeling is that Free Basics is a win for the underprivileged as well as for Facebook. The social network will extend its dominance through the initiative, while giving millions a first entry into the digital domain and some points of online contact with government authorities. Those who think Free Basics will serve as a permanent digital corral display inadequate faith both in human curiosity and the power of the Web. Just as giving people black-and-white TV sets that only access terrestrial channels does not prevent them from buying colour televisions and getting cable connections when they can afford it, Free Basics will be adopted only as long as it is helpful and discarded once it ceases to be so.