​Image: ​yaph/Flickr

Facebook's Colonies

When Facebook sets sail to disconnected markets, what version of the internet will it bring?

Feb 25 2015, 9:30pm

​Image: ​yaph/Flickr

That the internet is the most powerful tool humanity has ever created is old hat. I'm sure I could find the same thing written somewhere in a 1995 issue of Wired. And over those last 20 years, that knowledge has come with a simple imperative: we must increase access, close the digital divide, lest entire populations of people—who are likely already disadvantaged, as access trickles down with economic and geopolitical privilege—be left behind.

Facebook this week released a major report on global internet access, as part of the company's Internet.org campaign, which aims to bring cheap internet to new markets in partnership with seven mobile companies. Facebook says 1.39 billion people used its product in December 2014, and it's natural for the company to try to corral the other four-fifths of the planet.

But aside from ideals and growth markets, the report highlights a tension inherent to the question of access: When Facebook sets sail to disconnected markets, what version of the internet will it bring?

It's hard to argue that access to the internet, in the pure, open, democratic form first proposed and still championed by groups like the World Wide Web Foundation, could be anything but a positive force. (Using it all day still drives me insane, but I'm willing to acknowledge that I wouldn't have this job without it.)

We've seen that proven in myriad ways in recent years, but to me the unprecedented cyberattacks on Hong Kong protesters last year stands out. That type of effort wouldn't have been worth it if the internet didn't have the incredible ability to level the playing field between giants and little guys that it does.

The last ten or so years have seen unbelievable growth—in terms of money, power, and the various intersections thereof—in the internet industry, one that's solidly centered in the West. By bringing not just its product but access itself—which in this case are intrinsically tied—Facebook's global expansion will bring a version of the internet modeled after itself, producing colonies in local markets that are built in the Facebook image. In that light, parts of Facebook's report sound, as Carmel DeAmicis put it, "super imperialist."

Facebook's global expansion is fueled by a mixture of growth and advocacy.

In its report, Facebook advocates for closing the digital divide as quickly as we can, which is a good thing. But when Facebook argues that, "as use of the internet continues to expand, it will exert a powerful effect on the global economy, particularly in the developing world," it's arguing that any increase in access is inherently good, which isn't necessarily the case.

Facebook is a company that started with a brilliant idea and has been run well for 10-plus years by brilliant people, and is now one of the most successful companies that the world has ever seen. But in terms of access, Facebook (and Google and Cisco and any other brilliant, successful internet titan) was born in a tech sector that now has decades (and the dot-com bust) of experience, a major head start on any economy that Facebook wants to bring the internet to.

That's not to mention that, in those decades, those giants have been an undeniable force in shaping the internet in their likeness. That's not to begrudge highly successful businesses for making the internet a more thriving, usable. Would you want to go back to an internet without Google Search and Gmail and Google Scholar and whatever else? I wouldn't.

Facebook, a product of the established, US-based internet, will bring a version of that internet with it overseas

But then look at it from the perspective of Brazil President Dilma Rousseff back when she was sabre-rattling about cutting off Brazil from the US-led internet and building an independent internet, with progress and self-determination. The NSA's spying was obviously a major part of that backlash, but so was the simple fact that, by needing to work nicely with the established players, Brazil's burgeoning startup scene will long be stuck relying on, or at least playing second fiddle to, American corporations in order to succeed.

Facebook writes that:

A more connected world is a world of more opportunity, freer expression, and greater innovation. By eliminating barriers to the publication and dissemination of information and knowledge, the internet increases opportunities for everyone.

The internet isn't a guarantor of economic progress, but it is an enabler.

This is true. Look at Myanmar, which is the very definition of an emerging economy: The CIA World Factbook pegs the country's GDP (purchasing power parity) at 71st in the world, which drops to 201st when you calculate that per capita. But the real growth rate of Myanmar's GDP is ranked 26th globally, thanks largely to the economic reforms taken by the country's new government since 2011.

And like any growing economy these days, Myanmar has its own burgeoning app economy. The problem, however, is that the market for apps in Myanmar is tiny. Facebook's report highlights the country, along with Ethiopia, as having connectivity rates below 2 percent, perhaps the lowest in the world.

From the  ​Facebook report.

So yes, it's clear that, for the brilliant app maker in Myanmar, increasing access in the country will boost earning potential. Disruptions, Facebook argues, will follow. But who will bring them?

Let's look at this from Rousseff's perspective, which leaders in all the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China—have shared at one point or another. Facebook and its mountains of money are the undeniable king. Is a social media startup or ad network or anything else in the content space going to face a level playing field when Facebook brought the field in the first place?

In its report, Facebook makes the rather astute point that the digital divide is actually a two-part problem. First is the more traditional problem, that of access: Can you get people physically connected to the internet, both with infrastructure and personal devices?

But the second is less discussed, and credit to Facebook for pointing it out: The internet is useless if it's not also relevant to a local population. "If the relevancy issue is to be addressed," Facebook writes, "people will need content and services in their primary language across a variety of categories."

Facebook knows that the content of the internet, not just the tubes, must be plugged into local markets. Facebook, being increasingly a content company, is more than capable of supplying it. By delivering a complete package, Facebook will shape countries' internets—and therefore, according to Facebook's logic, their economies—in its own image.

Facebook, a product of the established, US-based internet, will, unwittingly or otherwise, bring a version of that internet with it overseas. That version is different than the one used in China,  or from Tim Berners-Lee's original vision for the web, or any other iteration in between. By virtue of differences in access, politics, and culture, the internet is a plurality, which makes it impossible for a company like Facebook to be sure that its interests and the environment that helped foster its rise will be a recipe for success everywhere it goes. As  ​Quartz's Leo Mirani said, "millions of Facebook users have no idea they're using the internet." What happens with the next billion?