Marc Andreessen could not have chosen a more loaded term than “colonialism” to describe Facebook’s ill-conceived attempt to enter the Indian Internet market. It rankles not only because of Facebook’s particular offer — Free Basics — but because it resonates with a global problem with the Internet.
Facebook must’ve thought it had a win-win proposal: A developing nation would get free Internet access and Facebook would be a core app for the millions of Indians it brought online. (Om Malik has a great piece on the politics of free.) It’s the same strategy that Apple followed by making its computers extraordinarily low-cost for schools: An entire generation of students grew up with computers in their classrooms, and those computers just happen to be made by Apple.
But Apple didn’t limit those computers to applications and information that it had chosen. Facebook’s free Internet access doesn’t include the open Web we associate with the Net; instead, it’s “a range of free basic services like news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information.” Facebook has evolved the Free Basics program so that any site can apply for inclusion, but Facebook still is the one that decides which apps to include, without any transparency or accountability.
This is a serious problem, and it certainly violates Net neutrality, as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India correctly decided when it ruled to block the service. (If only the American regulators would stop the major access providers from lifting data caps on the sources that they prefer, which is also a clear violation of the Neutrality rule.)
We could call Facebook’s action paternalistic — the wise father deciding what’s in our best interests to know and explore. In this case Facebook had a justification for some type of paternalism because the essence of the deal was that it would provide low bandwidth access; the company wanted to ensure that no high-bandwidth sites were accessed. But it could have done so without becoming a gatekeeper of those sites and their low-bandwidth versions. For example, there are wireless ISPs, or Wisps, in the United States providing access in rural areas that block some high-bandwidth apps that can dramatically lower the bandwidth for other customers sharing the signal. The last time I rode Amtrak, it blocked YouTube for the same reason.
But cherry-picking a handful of sites as the “basics” of the Internet goes beyond bandwidth management, and beyond paternalism or even censorship. It’s not just a Net Neutrality violation. It rings of colonialism, especially in the Indian context.
Colonialism was marked not just by the exploitation of foreign lands, but by the insistence that it was for their own good. Those nations needed to be “civilized,” they were repeatedly told. There were elements of colonial culture that were beneficial to the colonized, of course, including the introduction of modern medical techniques … when they were made available, that is. But to have one’s labor sold for crusts while being told that your oppressors were in fact morally superior adds insult to injury. Go to Jaipur, for example, and tell me that Indian culture — or more accurately, cultures — was inferior to Britain’s.
Unfortunately, colonialism is not just an issue for commercial programs like Facebook’s Free Basics but a lens through which the Internet as a whole can be viewed. The Internet originated in America, and it initially spread most rapidly to Western countries. The West had an early lead in shaping expectations and exploring possibilities. Even as countries like India and China and Brazil have developed their own sites, apps, and Internet culture — in fact, all countries where a significant portion of the population has embraced the Internet — the West too often has assumed that these countries want and need Western Internet sites and Western leadership.
The great promise of the Internet is that it is a global space connecting localities. But it turns out that it’s harder to appreciate other local cultures than Western minds may think. We grew up thinking of American culture as the most advanced and desired, and there’s no doubt that we have been highly valued contributors to world culture, from jazz to fast food. But just as too many Americans expect the rest of the world to speak English, we too often have assumed that our culture is the one the world really wants. This is a colonial mindset. Andreessen put his finger on it, to his distress. (And he has apologized.)
This is perhaps a good learning moment. Ideally we can learn from India’s contributions to Internet citizenship, as well as from all other cultures of the world. At the very least we should be aware that people always value their own culture. That’s what it means to be a culture. We’re all local citizens, after all — even on our global World Wide Web.