In recent months, Facebook has been secretly meeting with White House officials and wireless carriers about launching its controversial Free Basics program in the United States. The idea of this actually happening isn't just bad. It's terrifying. Photo: Getty
News of these meetings comes from a Washington Post report that cites unnamed sources who say that Facebook is trying to finagle a way to move forward with its plan without pissing off regulators. This seems understandable, since the US Federal Communications Commission has already started investigating what it can do about zero-rating programs like Free Basics. "Zero-rating" essentially amounts to a net neutrality nightmare. The tactic allows some internet companies to avoid data caps by playing nice with wireless carriers and offering basic services for free.
As we've explained in the past, Facebook's Free Basics program creates a walled off internet for poor people. Except it doesn't actually give its low income users free access to the internet. Free Basics gives people access to Facebook's version of the internet. The program is an obvious ploy to win more Facebook users and enable those users to trade their personal data for a cherry-picked set of services provided by big internet companies (like Facebook) who can afford to play ball.
Zero-rating, in general, introduces the same sick scenario. As Harvard Law professor Susan Crawford told The Post, "Zero-rating is pernicious, unfair and unnecessary."
The fact that zero-rating programs are bad isn't news, though. Facebook's Free Basics program specifically has been widely derided by internet advocates. India banned the program almost immediately after it was introduced, and Egypt banned it a week later. Facebook has managed to get 49 countries signed on to Free Basics. The idea that the US could be next, however, changes the game completely.
Indeed, millions of Americans lack easy access to the internet. This is a problem, especially as more and more services, including essential government services, exist largely online. But letting Facebook subvert open internet principles and create its own Facebooknet in the US amounts to opening Pandora's box. It would give Facebook access to the personal data of millions, potentially to profit off of their plight with new ad dollars. There's also the possibility that the Free Basics program won't always be free, since Facebook could always decide to start charging wireless carriers.
As The Post reports, Facebook has been targeting lesser known wireless carriers instead of the big boys in the US like Verizon and AT&T. This lets the social network fly under the radar of regulators to a certain extent. It also means that it will be easier to bully these smaller companies when the time comes. So far Facebook is keeping its dealings under wraps, simply saying in a statement that its "mission is to connect the world and we're always exploring ways to do that, including in the United States".
The really terrifying thing about all this is the unchecked power of the Facebook lobby. Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies have been beefing up their presence in Washington for years, precisely so that Facebook will have the power to pull off something like the net neutrality-bashing program that is Free Basics in America. Based on this latest report, it sounds like Facebook is holding discussions behind closed doors in an attempt to create loopholes that would allow it to undermine regulators as well as challenge the very principles on which the internet was founded. We already know that Facebook is willing and able to influence the kind of news people are reading. Facebook could control the tubes that deliver that information, as well.
That sucks. But it feels inevitable that Facebook wants to control how the internet works in America. That fact sucks even more.