Free global access to internet sounds like a great opportunity equalizer. And Free Basics, an app born from the Internet.org partnership spearheaded by Facebook, would seem to satisfy this need for equal access.
Free Basics offers users free access to member websites including Facebook -- no data charges, just search Wikipedia or post a status update online at your leisure. But opponents argue that the app violates the principles of net neutrality giving member sites an advantage in access to eyeballs and limiting internet options for users. The criticism hasn't deterred Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has turned the promise of widespread internet access into a personal crusade.
On Thursday, Buzzfeed and Wired published in-depth stories explaining where Free Basics -- framed by Facebook as a philanthropic venture -- came from, and why Zuckerberg is hell bent on seeing it through. Here are 5 key takeaways from the stories.
Internet.org is about more than Free Basics.
The app connecting users to member websites sans data charges is just one of a smattering of initiatives that fall under the Internet.org umbrella. The organization is working on drones to bring internet to places without the infrastructure to support connectivity, affordable smartphones, and a discounted WiFi program called Express Wi-Fi, according to Buzzfeed.
Free Basics goes back further than the launch of Internet.org.
It didn't start with the 2013 launch of Internet.org. Buzzfeed's Alex Kantrowitz traces the origins of Free Basics back to Facebook Zero, or o.Facebook, "a stripped-down, quick-loading, text-only version of Facebook" made available starting in 2010 on select mobile carriers. The service was free of data charges and bare-bones enough to work in locations where internet connections are weak.
Free Basics and Internet.org have more than Facebook behind them.
Internet.org includes Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia and Opera as partners after Facebook. Facebook's acquisitions of Israeli startups Snaptu and Onavu have played a key role in the development of Free Basics, according to Buzzfeed. Getting people to use Free Basics will involve a whole other kind of partnership -- one with small business owners in the areas where Internet.org hopes to draw in Free Basics users. Facebook is financing hotspots in villages in countries like South Africa, which requires agreement from entrepreneurs who are willing to act as evangelists, writes Wired's Jessi Hempel: These business owners need to let people know that the hotspots are there and make them feel comfortable sticking around to use them. Down the road, they could work on selling small data packages from local mobile carriers.
Not everyone believes Free Basics is philanthropic.
There are the net neutrality arguments and the accusations that Facebook is picking winners and losers among websites. Then there are frustrations about whether Internet.org is much of a "dot org" at all. Facebook's framing of the efforts as philanthropic is misleading, one activist opposed to Internet.org told Buzzfeed. "That's how Facebook is positioning it every single day in its advertising campaigns across India -- that it's a philanthropic venture -- whereas it's not a nonprofit," said Nikhil Pahwa. "It's a business venture, through and through." And Facebook waffles on its motivations with Free Basics -- it's a service that gives internet access to people who otherwise wouldn't have it, and that just happens to benefit Facebook. Buzzfeed calls it "philanthrocapitalism."
For Zuckerberg, this is about legacy.
Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed for the Times of India about Free Basics and went before the United Nations to push his initiatives. For him, this is about leaving a legacy, according to Wired. "There's no way we can draw a plan about why we're going to invest billions of dollars in getting mostly poor people online," Zuckerberg told Wired. "But at some level, we believe this is what we're here to do, and we think it's going to be good, and if we do it, some of that value will come back to us."