Thursday’s Falcon 9 explosion prompted headaches for two very powerful people. The first was Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, whose company’s future is now in question. The second was Mark Zuckerberg. Image: AP/Bryan Menegus
Zuckerberg, you see, had some very important cargo aboard the ill-fated Falcon 9: The Amos 6, an Israeli-built satellite that was supposed to help bring internet connectivity to Africa. It was part of an over-publicised master plan to connect everybody in the world and, more specifically, those in regions where the web isn’t easily accessed. Zuck wants everybody to have internet access — which is another way of saying that the 32-year-old hoodie enthusiast wants everybody on Earth to be on Facebook.
But on Thursday at around 11:00PM AEST, that possibility literally exploded in Zuckerberg’s face. In some ways, it’s difficult not to see the SpaceX explosion that destroyed the Amos 6 as a sign from above that maybe, just maybe, this “vision” of dragging everyone online isn’t as good as Zuckerberg wants us to believe.
The plan, officially known as Internet.org, launched in 2013. Broadly, it wants to bring “internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn’t have them”. The service’s actual platform, renamed Free Basics in 2015, includes a number of apps and services like BabyCenter and SmartBusiness. To get people connected to Free Basics, Facebook wants to use gadgets like Amos 6 and a newly designed drone called Aquila to “beam internet to people from the sky”.
The whole operation plan sounds wonderful in theory: Get everybody online, particularly those who wouldn’t normally be able to.
“The internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress,” Zuckerberg wrote in April 2015. “It gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities. It gives voice to the voiceless in our society, and it connects people with vital resources for health and education.”
What Zuckerberg conveniently leaves out, however, is that he holds the puppet strings for the entire operation. As Josh Levy explained back in a 2015 Wired opinion column, “For people using Internet.org to connect to the internet, Facebook will be the de facto gatekeeper of the world’s information.” Levy refers to the Internet.org as a type of “Facebooknet”.
The danger here is obvious. Facebook is an enormously powerful private company that isn’t beholden to the same kinds of rules that, say, major telecom companies like Telstra are. Moreover, Facebook has shown in the past that it prefers to keep the nuts and bolts of its operations under wraps — which is a mighty big problem when you’re talking about providing selective internet access to millions of people. (Not to mention the myriad security issues that have come up.)
Internet.org and its spawn Free Basics is, as Gizmodo has previously written, “a stripped-down, walled-off web for poor people.” Unsurprisingly, this approach hasn’t gone unnoticed by the very people for whom it’s intended. In December 2015, India voiced concerns about the program’s net neutrality issues and effectively told Facebook to piss off. A week later, Facebook Basics was also banned in Egypt, though reportedly for more nefarious reasons. And before that, a large group of telecom companies, security experts and net neutrality supporters wrote an open letter expressing concern that “access for impoverished people is construed as justification for violations of net neutrality”.
Yet Zuckerberg, ever the philanthropic saviour, has stubbornly refused to give up. (Remember, this is the same man who warned us all that there’s such thing as too much net neutrality.) In June, Zuck oversaw a test flight of Aquila, the other gadget Facebook wants to use to trot out the gift of restricted internet access. (He even gave a model of Aquila to Pope Francis!) And this week, Zuckerberg spent much of his time talking up the satellite. “[It] means more connectivity and more opportunity for entrepreneurs like Rosemary everywhere,” he wrote in a Facebook post about Amos 6 and African entrepreneurs.
Unfortunately, it all burst into flames before it could even take off.
While Zuckerberg was “deeply disappointed” by the explosion, Facebook insisted this wasn’t the end of the road. “[We] remain committed to our mission of connecting people to the Internet around the world,” a spokesperson for the company told Gizmodo yesterday.
Elsewhere, though, the sentiment was slightly different.
Facebook’s https://t.co/xmxLqav7wB satellite exploding on a SpaceX rocket isn’t a metaphor for anything, but it feel like it.— Jeff O'Neal (@thejeffoneal) September 1, 2016
"The satellite was designed to provide direct satellite data services including Facebook access" was this explosion good for net neutrality?— Nicolás Álvarez (@nicolas09F9) September 1, 2016
None of this is to say that regions without internet access should remain in the 21st century-equivalent of the dark. But they should get something better than Facebook-controlled internet. If an exploding rocket isn’t a celestial sign of that, then what is?