Facebook and Google stake claims in developing world with global internet projects

Net-neutrality advocates are cheering India's decision to reject Facebook's Free Basics program, but say private companies have a big role to play in spreading broadband internet access across the developing world.

Are big tech companies motivated by good or greed when they offer free internet to the world's poor?

Motorists ride past a billboard displaying Facebook's Free Basics initiative in Mumbai. The app, which India banned, provides free but limited access to the internet. (Danish Siddiqu/Reuters)

Net-neutrality advocates are cheering India's decision to reject Facebook's Free Basics program, but say private companies have a big role to play in spreading broadband internet access across the developing world. 

Tech giants like Facebook, Google, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX all have high-concept projects in the works to bring broadband internet to the masses around the globe.

While these companies paint their efforts as philanthropic, experts caution that businesses are ultimately motivated by self-interest.

The United Nations believes expanding broadband access is key to achieving its millennium development goals to alleviate world poverty. 

"Everybody understands that [the internet] is a platform that is absolutely critical for social and economic development," Sonia Jorge, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, told CBC News. 

But 60 per cent of the world's population remains offline, according to the alliance, which works to achieve the UN Broadband Commission's target of global entry-level broadband priced at less than five per cent of monthly income.

The private sector, Jorge said, has a key role to play in achieving these goals. 

"Public-private partnerships are so important in this context," she said. "But just as important are the voices and concerns of many other organizations within the wider civil society space, as well as within the research space."

Facebook's Free Basics backlash 

Free Basics, a key element of Facebook's foray into expanding internet access, has long been marred by controversy. 

The app — which offers free access to Facebook and a few other select websites to 19 million people in 38 countries — has been accused of being anti-competitive and even colonial.

It hit a major speed bump last week when India's telecom regulator banned internet service providers from charging different prices for access to different parts of the web — a strategy known as differential pricing, or zero-rated services. 

Proponents of net neutrality — the idea that all online services should be equally accessible — hailed the decision.

"There are a lot of great ways to bring the unconnected online, but Facebook's Free Basics was not one of them," said Josh Tabish from the Vancouver-based organization Open Media. 

"Instead, we want to see fair open access programs that ensure future citizens of the open web get access to the full, real internet — not a stripped down, restricted version that's been pre-approved by gatekeepers like Facebook."

Countries in 2015 with access to Facebook's Free Basics. (Reuters)

The backlash was heightened when Facebook board member Marc Andreessen took to Twitter to compare Free Basics favourably to the British colonization of India — insisting that both were good for the country. 

He has since apologized for the comments, which Facebook says do not reflect the company's values. 

"We will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings," a Facebook spokesperson told CBC News.

Business, not charity 

Leo Marani, a tech reporter for The Economist, says the Free Basics backlash stems in part from the way the app has been marketed. 

​"Facebook has painted this as sort of an altruistic, almost philanthropic endeavour. If you watch the videos that they put out or the press releases that they put out, ads put in Indian newspapers over the last couple of months, they make it seem like they are providing malaria shots to five-year-olds," Marani said in an interview on CBC Radio's Spark

"Not only is it not an altruistic effort, it also has the potential to be damaging to the business of startups in these countries ... and it gives Facebook a tremendous amount of power over the internet."

But Free Basics is just one horse in the race to expand broadband access globally. 

Google is building fibre-optic and Wi-Fi networks in various African countries through Project Link  It's also testing Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to create aerial wireless networks.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, right, walks in front of a giant balloon to show Project Loon to Indonesian delegates at the Google office in Mountain View, Calif. The project would use the balloons to create aerial wireless networks. (Yudhi Mahatma/Antara Foto/Reuters)

"This isn't about favouring our products. We're supportive of a free and open internet. And when we talk about access, we mean access to the real full-speed, full-colour internet," a Google spokesperson told CBC News.

Meanwhile, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson have both announced plans to build a satellite network to expand and improve internet access for billions of people. 

Even Free Basics is just one initiative of Facebook's project, which also includes plans to extend networks through solar-powered planes, satellites and lasers.

"What's interesting about [these projects] is they're very innovative ways of using technology for much more affordable broadband, especially in those areas that have been very hard to reach up until now," said Jorge from the Alliance for Affordable Internet.

Still, Marani cautions that these companies all overstate their philanthropic motivations for projects that will grow their user bases and help their bottom lines. 

"I don't think the others are quite as egregious as Facebook, but Silicon Valley in general does have a collective messiah complex," he said.


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