What can we learn from Free Basics’ failure in India?
When Indian regulators effectively banned Facebook's Free Basics this week, a service that provides free access to a limited version of the internet through Facebook itself, they called it a victory for net neutrality. Marc Andreessen, a Facebook board member and venture capitalist, had a different take: he tweeted that the decision was an economically "catastrophic" anti-colonialist policy. Andreessen has since apologized and retracted his statement.
Whose wording is most accurate here? Was India's rejection of Free Basics indeed based solely on principles of net neutrality—the idea that all data should be treated equally—or resistance to economic, political, or social colonization by a powerful American corporation? Retraction or not, Andreessen momentarily made the connection explicit: The fact is that, with a global internet, the two ideas are inextricably linked. Net neutrality is anti-colonialist, and is thus part of a wider political project.
"If the internet is becoming a major vehicle for transnational corporate advertising, you are quite justified in talking about the extension of cultural imperialism into the internet"
Free Basics has been referred to as colonialist before, even on this very website, for many of the same reasons that Indian regulators gave for their decision. Basically, "zero-rating," the practice of offering some data services for free, unfairly advantages the provider of the free service—in this case, Facebook. When people's introduction to internet is through Facebook, there is the risk of creating an informational underclass of people who, for reasons of economic inequality, are dependent primarily on an American corporation for access to information. Hell, even for many users in the US, Facebook is the internet.
Zero-rating is absolutely part of the net neutrality conversation stateside—should resisting these trends be seen as pro-net neutrality, or anti-colonialist? To see these issues as separate is to ignore the imperialistic, and even colonial, nature of modern corporatism. But to acknowledge that they are on in the same widens the net neutrality debate. We're not fighting over data, or even one specific issue with corporatism, but against American corporatism itself as it colonizes the growing web.
The colonialism of old was often led by nation-states and the finance sector—and arguably still is, in many cases—but for years scholars like Herbert Schiller and, more recently, Christian Fuchs have turned to look more closely at the power multinational corporations (buoyed by the economic policies of their home countries) hold over nations they expand into, particularly with regard to the information industry. "If the internet is becoming a major vehicle for transnational corporate advertising," Schiller said in a 1997 interview with media scholar Geert Lovink, "you are quite justified in talking about the extension of cultural imperialism into the internet."
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Where net neutrality and anti-colonialism overlap is the idea that modern colonialism is less the purview of legionnaires marching across the desert and is instead carried out by largely white, male, Western people in suits shaking hands and making deals in glass-walled offices. Transnational business decisions promote the Western style of political and economic control. To be sure, the rejection of not just Facebook's ostensible attempt to give itself a head start in a new market—upsetting the balance of a neutral web—but its perceived attempt to colonize India's cultural life and telecom infrastructure was readily apparent in India.
One should note that this is a "square-peg-round-hole" scenario in more than one sense. In entering India, Facebook was arguably importing an Americanized model of the internet, and that means ads, at least eventually. This is problematic for two reasons: as numerous critics have noted, the ad-driven profit model of the web is rotting thanks to rampant gaming. Moreover, rates of mobile internet access are growing much faster than desktop access in India, like other developing nations. In an app-led internet environment, the conversation around net neutrality is totally different than in the US, where the open web is still very much alive and well.
As the New York Times noted, Facebook's multi-million dollar advertising spree in India did nothing to convince Indians about the virtues of Free Basics, and instead fostered the attitude that Facebook was merely trying to carve out a permanent place for itself in India's telecom landscape, instead of improving internet access writ large. Not only that, but that viewing the internet through Facebook's selective lens would have people looking at the web through blue-tinted glasses.
So, though the language of net neutrality was used by India's regulators in making their decision, the result was no doubt anti-colonial—it rejected the expansion of a massive, multinational, US-based company, and its impositions on culture and infrastructure.
This conclusion should change the way that we in the West look at the struggle over net neutrality. Because when we prevent large corporations from curating our access to information along the lines of economic self-interest, what are we really preventing? Is net neutrality really such a dry, apolitical issue of consumer concern, or does it confront the colonizing tendencies of the corporate sector on the global internet and its material infrastructure? I believe India has already given us our answer.