– Free access or digital prison? | #mediadev | DW | 17.08.2015
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Insights – Free access or digital prison?

Facebook’s initiative aims to bring internet access to the two-thirds of the world which doesn’t have it. Launched in 2014, it’s still dogged by controversy. #mediadev looks at the main questions around it.

What is is a Facebook program that enables free mobile access to a selection of web services in emerging markets. To access the service, people have to use special apps, the website or the Opera Mini browser.

Subscribers have access to a limited number of online services without having to pay to for the data involved, a practice called zero-rating. (High data charges are an obstacle to internet access for many people in developing countries.) Those sites include a pared-down version of Facebook, and other sites devoted to news and sports, health info, weather, Wikipedia, etc. The pages are basic – no high-resolution pictures, videos or voice chat options – so data use stays low.

The initiative was first announced in 2013, but debuted in Zambia in July 2014.

What has accomplished in its first year? has since launched in India, Colombia, Guatemala, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malawi and elsewhere. Facebook says it has worked with more than a dozen mobile operators in 17 countries and across three continents.

Facebook says more than nine million people have used the service and that it’s also been a boon for mobile networks, since new users sign up “over 50% faster after launching free basic services.” The company says that over half of those who subscribe to end up paying for extra data services and accessing the larger internet within 30 days, which makes it attractive to mobile service providers.

Why has it come under so much criticism?

Experts agree that internet access brings concrete benefits to communities, empowering individuals and supporting fundamental human rights and development.

“There's a clear benefit to universal internet access from a media development perspective, and from pretty much every other perspective - economic, educational, political, and so on,” Josh Levy, advocacy director of the digital rights group Access, told #mediadev. “Access to the full, free, and open internet enables not only access to information, but the ability to participate in one's community, to innovate, to create, and to organize.”

However, he and many others say does not offer real internet access. Rather, it locks people into a sort of walled garden or digital prison containing sites that have been handpicked by a corporation.

“ offers its users a filtered and controlled view of the world,” Pierre François Docquir of the press freedom group ARTICLE 19 told #mediadev. “It violates the basic, fundamental principle of net neutrality and therefore has the potential to negatively impact freedom of expression.”

The net neutrality debate around has been especially heated, since the service favors access to some sites and apps over others. An open letter from 67 digital rights groups to Facebook challenged the initiative’s zero-rating model, calling it discriminatory.

In India, the uproar led a number of Internet companies there to distance themselves from the initiative. In Africa, the outcry has been more muted.

Are there other complaints?

Critics cite possible security problems, since restricts the use of security tools like SSL and TLS, and privacy concerns. is also accused of stifling innovation because entrepreneurs wanting to participate must tailor their sites and services to Facebook’s specifications. That could be a big hurdle for firms with small teams and limited budgets, said Levy of Access. “No one company should have so much control over the ability for small businesses and individuals to succeed,” he added. That policy is an obstacle to the building of local internet-based economies that could contribute to socio-economic development, critics say.

How has Facebook responded?

Facebook vigorously defends the program, and has posted a Myths and Facts page on the site. In a video, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg expresses his support for “a reasonable” definition of net neutrality. “It’s not an equal internet if the majority of people can’t participate,” he says, adding that Facebook’s vision was to give people access to more services over time. announced this summer it was opening up the platform, saying it would like to see more local developers create simple apps for it. To join, developers need to meet several criteria: offering services which are not data-intensive, that run on feature phones as well as smartphones, and that “encourage the exploration of the broader internet if possible,” which appears to mean locking users inside a developer’s app is not OK.

Can really make a different in developing countries?

It appears that the more than nine million people signed up are doing more online than just posting status updates. Facebook says that in the month before its one-year anniversary in July users accessed health services more than a million times.

One of the free resources on the service in Zambia is WRAPP (Women’s Rights App) that informs Zambians of women’s rights, legislation around them, and steps to take if those rights have been violated.

A study on media habits among youth in Swaziland, commissioned in part by UNESCO, found that 69 percent consider social media their favorite medium for accessing information. The study found that Facebook has potential as both a tool for learning and helping marginalized communities express themselves. This indicates Facebook might be less a digital prison than a way for people to create their own networks.

Stephen Song, an Internet researcher for the Network Startup Resource Center, finds the virulent criticism of and the zero-rate app a little paternalistic, comparing it to the following conversation:

“Don’t eat that hamburger son, it isn’t good for you.”

“Yeah but I’m hungry.”

“Wait till you can afford some healthy food.”

He writes that there is an argument that having access to some parts of the Internet is better than having none at all.