I had a history teacher that would drop one liner catchphrases left and right. From, “Return with me to these days of yesteryear” to “It’s tighter than spandex on an expanding middle aged thigh,” my teacher found new and unique ways to explain concepts to the class. Despite hearing a plethora of noteworthy quotes throughout the year, he one about colonialism that stuck with me: “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” The idea is that part of colonialist expansion is changing the culture and society of the colonized nation to match that of the colonist.
It is this quote that ran through my mind when I first heard of Free Basics, Facebook’s initiative to bring internet access to underdeveloped areas of the world. The idea is that Facebook provides internet access through cellular devices to a select few number of sites for people in areas of the world without easily accessible internet access. At first glance, this seems like a noble endeavor for the tech giant. In the modern era, it is almost a necessity to have internet capabilities to develop and grow, and providing this to mass amounts of the world for free is no small feat. But if this is the goal of Free Basics, why did India reject the service in 2016?
The answer is simple: Free Basics is not as wholesome as it appears on paper. The program was criticized in India on the grounds of net neutrality (remember that thing John Oliver talked about?). If Facebook hand picks the websites and companies that people using the service have access to, then it inherently cannot adhere to net neutrality. India may have outwardly criticized Free Basics for this, but there are still dozens of regions that use the service. From Zambia to Indonesia, the service is still alive and well.
Not to trivialize the concerns surrounding net neutrality, but if the alternative to controlled access to sites is no access at all, some may still argue that service provides more overall good than harm. Unfortunately, net neutrality is only the beginning of the issues.
In the US, Facebook is a frequently visited site that exists within the confines of the internet, but Free Basics shifts Facebook to becoming the internet itself. Facebook becomes the infrastructure for the internet in these new places. If these countries do begin to grow and develop, they will be expanding with Facebook as their basis for internet access. The social media site does not intend to develop the necessary tools for the countries to have internet capabilities, rather, they remain the sole providers of internet access. If the site remains the monopolized owner of all internet access for multiple nations, the influence they have will have in politics and culture is the likes of something never seen before.
If Facebook controls the sites that entire countries have people have access to, they can make incredible financial gain off of other companies trying to be added to the list of websites, while also molding the ideology that is funneled in. The modern day colonialism doesn’t include countries physically taking over other countries, but companies controlling the way people consume and process digital media. In other words, Facebook can make these places look, walk, and quack like whatever ducks they want them to.