- Digitally, this time
Let’s turn our clocks back to the 17th century, when the East India Company, an enterprise, leveraged and expanded their way into the subcontinent. Being a trade monopoly, they were able to wrestle and gain economic control of the subcontinent to expand and colonize most of the then Mughal Empire. Fast-forward to today, the memories of the colonialist past are recent for our young nation, but have we actually learned the lesson?
I’m referring here to the tactics of grabbing attention used by social media giants, and their attempts to hook users even before they start using the internet. In 2015, facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg launched ‘internet.org’, a ‘noble’ initiative to bring internet to the next billion users and targeted developing countries with their zero-rating offerings. Zero-rating is typically identified as the practice of providing free internet access, with the caveat that only select websites can be accessed. Facebook provided the technology needed to enable free access to a stripped-down version of the internet, while local telecom companies paid the operational price of this free internet. Sounds reasonable enough, right?
Except that this version of the internet* isn’t just stripped down. It’s a collection of websites that exclusively Facebook chose, and called it “freebasics”. It’s supposed to be a basic version of the internet, with Bing as the search engine, AccuWeather for weather forecasts, and no prizes for guessing, Facebook as your only option for social media. It’s not the internet by any means; rather, it’s a handful of websites curated by Facebook itself. This version of the internet which is intended for the low-income reeks of cultural imperialism; most websites hosted on freebasics do not offer local language support. Facebook wasn’t very interested in doing the due diligence to find out what the low-income people across the different communities stand to gain from Freebasics. They pushed the same set of websites across the 38 countries, with Facebook at the top of the list.
Facebook was teaming up with local telecom providers in 2015 to preload freebasics on mobile phones and aggressively publicizing freebasics as a tool to promote internet literacy. Zuckerberg sold freebasics as a virtuous public service Facebook was doing. He argued repeatedly that “freebasics is better than having no internet at all”. Hyper focused on their user growth, Facebook was ready to use any means necessary to amass more users for their product. Facebook had seen their growth numbers slow down as virtually everyone in the west was already on Facebook. Their eye was on the golden goose, India, and other developing countries like Pakistan which would give them an instant bump in users. Facebook would have complete control over this version of the internet, and would not allow any competitor to go on freebasics. Three months into the launch of freebasics, a large number of its users in India reported that they thought Facebook itself is the internet. Facebook was making sure that even before people get a chance to use the actual internet, they already have a Facebook account.
Facebook wields a lot of influential power as a platform. It collects data on users’ interests and uses attention-grabbing tools it has ingeniously crafted to sell us ads. With tools like freebasics, they can do that with users who aren’t even on the internet yet. When we use Facebook, we pay through the time and attention we expend on the platform, and during this time, Facebook chooses to plug us with any ad it likes.
India’s local IT industry and startups saw facebook’s version of the internet as an existential threat. India was suspicious of Facebook’s intention, and in 2016 they set forth laws in favor of net neutrality which meant that every website would be equally accessible from the internet for any user in India, effectively banning internet.org and freebasics. They saw the unfair competitive advantage Facebook and their product offerings were having and stifling local IT startups. This also forced Facebook and Google’s hand into investing in the availability of India’s internet across the board. As of recently, both the tech giants have been heavily investing in India by establishing Wifi hotspots across the country. A well-defined policy that created a level playing field attracted foreign investments into India’s internet architecture.
Earlier this year Bangladesh also moved forward to ban zero-rating. While Bangladesh’s reasons to ban zero-rating were motivated by “stopping unhealthy competition and reducing criminal activity”, these are things PTA should also be paying close attention to. What impact does facebook’s zero-rating internet have on users in Pakistan?
To this day, freebasics or facebook flex is still accessible from Zong and Telenor. Going a step further, Facebook has teamed up with local telecom providers to provide access to a Facebook free version that includes images and videos that they very unabashedly advertise. Users have the option to use Facebook all day long without paying a single rupee. We should be thinking very hard, what does Facebook gain from all of this?
The Telecom sector is big, and an important industry in Pakistan. Freebasics would help them entice users with a free low-data version of the internet. Pakistan and 37 other countries have naively rejoiced the availability of this free version of the internet, even with the local telecom providers having to bear the operating costs. The local telecom partners have advertised it as a competitive edge over other carriers. Ufone, Telenor, and Zong still offer data packages that make Facebook completely free for their subscribers. Is this perhaps a lack of policy from PTA that has led telecom operators to enter into this zero-rating race with each other? They have to bear the operation costs and offer free Facebook even if it comes as an ethical compromise, just to stay ahead of the competition.
2015 and 2020 are different landscapes for Pakistan’s IT sector too. Pakistan has seen a large boom in startups. Since 2015, technology startups have been raising considerable amounts of money. We saw Airlift raise $24 million just between 2019 and 2020. The future could be bright for the local Pakistani IT industry but these startups do not have access to a market that Facebook has always had in Pakistan. Facebook has abused their leverage with local telecom companies to create a garden wall that local companies don’t have direct access to. Just as Facebook has expanded with its social media offerings, it has also been diversifying into other domains by introducing a marketplace, and a job portal directly on Facebook. As it would stand, Facebook’s job portal and the marketplace could be accessed free of charges, while accessing Rozee.pk and Daraz.pk/OLX would incur standard data charges. Would PTA take any action to curtail Facebook’s data monopoly on Pakistani consumers?
Facebook wields a lot of influential power as a platform. It collects data on users’ interests and uses attention-grabbing tools it has ingeniously crafted to sell us ads. With tools like freebasics, they can do that with users who aren’t even on the internet yet. When we use Facebook, we pay through the time and attention we expend on the platform, and during this time, Facebook chooses to plug us with any ad it likes. It could be something as simple as an ad of a fizzy drink. Or it could be falsified political ads that end up changing the course of a country’s politics like it potentially did when Russian bots were found to be running ads in favor of Donald Trump in the presidential election of the United States in 2016.
This should be a big concern for countries like Pakistan. Foreign powers have access to spread misinformation and sway Pakistan’s political discourse to whatever they will. Rumors and hate speech that were spread through Facebook in Sri Lanka caused massive anti-Muslim riots in 2018 leading to damage of 465 properties and the death of 2 people. Sectarian violence and mob violence are not unfamiliar terms to Pakistan. Pakistan is seeing a large increase in the emergence of fringe groups that heavily rely on the viral spread of provocative messages. With examples like above, Facebook and Whatsapp have been observed to be breeding grounds of fringe opinions.
It’s evident that PTA needs to take back the leeway that Facebook has been granted in Pakistan, whatever reason that might be. What’s unnerving is that foreign powers have opportunities to orchestrate misinformation campaigns with outreach beyond the known internet users meanwhile our telecom operators cheer for “free Facebook”.
The author is a freelance writer and can be reached at [email protected]