Facebook puts noble face on what is really a self-serving walled garden


Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said back in February that he wanted to make basic internet access free in emerging markets, through the Internet.org initiative. Well here we go: Internet.org has introduced an app that will act as a limited portal to the internet, and it’s rolling out first in Zambia.

Facebook’s strategy is to enter a market with little to no existing internet access, make a deal with a large provider to create a large swath of internet coverage. Access is free, but the ecosystem is controlled and extremely limited.

On Thursday Internet.org revealed a partnership with the Zambian subsidiary of Indian telecoms giant Bharti Airtel. Airtel’s customers there will be able to use the Internet.org Android app – or the Internet.org website, or the Facebook for Android app – to access a set of services at zero cost. Facebook and Messenger are in there of course, as are Wikipedia, AccuWeather, Google Search, and a selection of local services such as jobs portals, the women’s rights app WRAPP, and a basic library of Zambian laws.

Facebook, as well as the Zambian government, now control the message. A walled government that is free and easy to maintain. Facebook wins unfettered access to a huge population of new, dedicated customers. Competition is eliminated. Privacy is also eliminated.

Beyond that, the only way out of this walled garden is to pay your way out, which stratifies the internet in the same way as the ISP fast lanes do.

  • jeffbax

    I’m not inclined to agree this is as dramatic as you seemed to make it out to be. If anything, it will cause demand for the “real” internet to go up once people see all these links they can’t access. I don’t think it’s malicious of a company who is footing the bill to gain from what they are doing.

    While I’m also skeptical of the privacy implications (due to all the major companies being vested in ads, and many of these countries not necessarily having the best rights record) I feel like these complaints are sour grapes on the part of the wealthy telling the poor in these countries they should be content with walking miles to work instead of riding a free Vespa because the companies aren’t handing out free SUVs instead.

    Presumably, the people utilizing services they are getting for free are contributing the bottom line that provides them in the first place. IF the market for the “full” internet goes away (and that is a huge if, again if anything I expect demand to rise) then we can start to complain but too many times people cry calamity before anything bad’s actually happened when the stakes are not high in the first place considering most people have 0 network access at all.

  • Lukas

    Give access to internet and government to poor people: BAD WALLED GARDEN!

    Dictate what adult customers are allowed to do with their 600$ device: APPLE PROTECTING CUSTOMERS!

    • freediverx

      There’s a difference between living in a walled garden with the freedom to venture outside any time you want (via the web browser), and Facebook’s third world internet “walled garden” with no way out, which is essentially a prison.

  • Meaux

    Is it more or less stratified than no internet for free and only internet for those who pay? Good is not the enemy of perfect.

  • RonBraithwaite

    Back in 1990, I was a guest lecturer in Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Zimbabwe and was shocked to learn that the closest connection was a dialup to the university in Capetown South Africa – an international call to check my email (this was all text – no HTML yet). I contacted a German Liberal NGO (Liberal in the most literal sense of the word) and purchased a copy of FidoNet and set it up on their system with a dialup modem. Within a week, there were people dialing up 24 hours a day and they had to add multiple lines and modems. It was quite a feeling of accomplishment: I had brought the Internet to Zimbabwe.

    Your worry about FB bringing a walled garden to Zambia, but it will quickly grow beyond that. Once people have a connection, they will figure out how to find “forbidden” sites. And I’ll bet Mark Zuckerberg knows that, but used the “walled garden” approach to get the Zambian powers on board.

    What is incredibly sad is that 24 years have passed since Zimbabwe got Fidonet and only now is Zambia getting online. There needs to be universal access for everyone, even if it starts with a walled garden.