Who needs the Internet when you have Facebook?

“What do you mean, it’s not the same thing?”

More people in the world have access to Facebook than have access to the Internet.

“But how can that be?”, you ask. Well, it can’t. So, the statement is not true, technically. However, in a recent survey sponsored by Quartz, approximately 11% of Facebook users in Indonesia and 9% of Facebook users in Nigeria claim that they don’t use the Internet. It turns out that they don’t know that they have access to the Internet, because all they use is Facebook. And it never occurred to them to look any further.

That makes Facebook the ultimate “walled garden”, the generic term for a mega-platform that tries to get you to never leave. They’re obviously pretty good at it, and they’re getting even better.

hands texting with mobile phones in cafe

Consider:

Facebook pages were launched in 2007 to pre-empt the posting of external links by businesses trying to promote themselves on the growing social media channel. Why to to the company’s site when Facebokk is easier to navigate?

Facebook video was rolled out in 2013 to prevent users from having to click on a YouTube link (embedded or not), and to pre-empt the YouTube ads before and after. The engagement with videos is massive: approximately 4 billion videos are seen on Facebook every day.

Facebook commerce: the “buy” button on some Facebook ads means that you don’t have to, ugh, go to another page and fill out all those online forms. Two to three clicks and your impulse purchase is on its way. And you haven’t lost your place in your social feed. What’s more, you haven’t had to wade through pages and pages of e-commerce images. Facebook knows what you like.

Facebook news: Earlier this year, Facebook announced deals with major media companies (The New York Times, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and others) to publish “instant articles” on the platform. No more slow loading times and distracting links to the publisher’s web. Now their articles are published directly on Facebook.

Facebook payments allows people to send money via the Messenger App. Sure, you could leave Facebook and go into Venmo or whatever mobile payments platform you use to send money. But why would you want to when paying on Facebook is as easy as tapping the dollar sign in the message window? At the moment Facebook has rolled out its payment platform in a few cities, as of yesterday including New York, and at the moment it is only for payments to Facebook friends, not businesses – but it looks set to expand.

All this can be seen as the ultimate in convenience. Yay, I don’t need to leave Facebook to talk to my friends/pay my bills/read my news/do my homework/order my food/buy my clothes.

Give me space

Or, it can be seen as a bit sinister. Just think what Facebook knows about you. A lot. Even if you don’t update often, it knows who your friends are and what they’re doing. It knows what you do in all the sites for which you use your Facebook login. I got a bit freaked out this morning when Facebook reminded me of an event that I have today. I have no recollection of signing up for or even commenting on that event on Facebook.

Right now, the convenience seems to be winning. We are, on the whole, lazy, and we choose the easy option (the most popular password is still “password”). Because we have nothing to hide, right? Nothing to fear? And that Zuckerberg seems like a nice guy. But let’s think a bit further down the road. What if one day he no longer runs Facebook? Or, say, Facebook is hacked by identity thieves? Or, say, Facebook and the [insert tax authority here] do a lucrative deal in which Facebook no longer pays taxes in exchange for testing a new illicit-economic-activity algorithm? Carry on down this road, and you begin to see the dangers of having so much of your data within one walled garden.

And let’s take a quick look at some of Facebook’s recent acquisitions:

Instagram (what are you doing when you’re not on Facebook?), Face.com (facial recognition software, so it’s easier to identify who you’re with in your Instagram and Facebook photos), Whatsapp (who are you talking to when you’re not using Facebook Messenger, and what about?), TheFind (a personalized shopping search engine – what are you interested in buying?), Wit.ai (speech recognition – possibly for voice search, for a Siri-like personal assistant, or perhaps for more data gathering when Facebook enters the mobile or desktop internet voice communication sector), Jibbigo (speech recognition and machine translation – it knows what you’re saying in many languages), ProtoGeo Oy (an app that can track where you are and what you’re doing). There are many, many more, but you get the picture.

It’s for your own good, really

Now, Facebook provides a great service. It connects people that would otherwise lose touch, and connections are a good thing. It facilitates communication, it helps you to reach out, and it provides community and company when needed. But no-one can deny these days that data is power, and that Facebook has a lot of both. And we all know that too much power is very dangerous.

Consider again:

It’s convenient getting your news on Facebook. But has anyone wondered to what extent Facebook influences what news we see? Yes, you can set certain parameters. But, ultimately, Facebook controls the algorithm that pushes the stories to your screen. Another question is to what extent Facebook SHOULD act as censor, to respect local laws or cultural sensibilities. Or maybe even its own self-interest, who knows… Would it allow news articles that criticize Facebook?

Facebook is far and away the leader in social media, something that mobile operators are beginning to use in their marketing. In India you can get a Facebook-only mobile data plan that costs a quarter of what the general Internet access plan costs. This will further entrench the idea that Facebook is the Internet, especially in the younger, lower-income groups that could most benefit from broader access to education services and information. US operator Sprint also offers a Facebook-only plan, or a Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest-only plan, for just $12. Sprint claims that this is to offer more choice to its users. I’m not sure if the irony is intentional.

internet org

screenshot from Internet.org

And for the good of the world

Now for a more insidious development:

For several years now Facebook has been developing Internet.org to bring Internet access to those living in rural areas in emerging economies, with no phone cables and limited infrastructure. This service is currently available in Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Colombia, Guatemala, Panama, the Phillipines, and today Facebook announced the launch in Pakistan. The platform is based on agreements with local mobile operators, and offers free connection to Facebook, Facebook Messenger and a limited selection of local sites such as job search, health information, etc.

Generally, among the available web services, Facebook wins hands down in terms of usability. As it well should, given the fortunes it has spent on testing and iterating the ideal user experience, something the local sites have probably not been able to do. So it’s logical to expect that the vast majority of the time the new users spend online will be on Facebook, especially if Facebook also starts to offer the same useful local information. Bundling other non-Facebook sites into the offer could well end up being just window-dressing.

internet org app

The free access part does sound good, making access affordable to millions for the first time. And most of the Internet.org users also have access to Wikipedia and Google Search results. But clicking through on a search result is not free, that requires a mobile data plan, something that most of these users don’t have and can’t afford.

And the very name itself confuses the users. When they use internet.org, obviously they think they’re using the Internet. After all, it’s in the name, right? But they’re not, they’re accessing a limited number of walled gardens. It’s not the same thing at all, and encouraging them at their first access to equate Facebook with the Internet, is not exactly in line with the saving-humanity message that accompanied the app’s launch.

The mobile carriers partner with Internet.org and allow free access to Facebook’s selection of services because they hope that the additional users will before long sign up for data packages to use the rest of the Internet. And that may happen, and I hope that it does, but Facebook is getting very good, as I said before, at keeping people in. It’s relatively well-designed, it’s convenient and it’s familiar. It doesn’t want anyone to leave. The local operators are hoping that it fails at that.

The underlying business model of the project, which seems to want to blur the distinction between the promotor and the Internet, is finally and understandably coming under considerable scrutiny. In India, several of the companies originally slated to participate withdrew in protest over the potential danger to net neutrality. And an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg from 67 human rights groups around the world, ironically enough published on Facebook, makes several compelling points about the negative impact on net neutrality and the worrying precedent that these agreements set:

“…we are deeply concerned that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs. In its present conception,   Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.”

And,

“Facebook is partnering with ISPs around the world to offer access to certain Internet applications to users at no cost. These agreements endanger freedom of expression and equality of opportunity by letting service providers decide which Internet services will be privileged over others, thus interfering with the free flow of information and people’s rights vis-a-vis networks.”

The signatories support the idea, but not the implementation:

“We have always sought to provide non-discriminatory access to the full open Internet, without privileging certain applications or services over others and without compromising the privacy and security of users.”

You can see the entire text here.

So, are these millions that Facebook is hoping to reach going to be connected to the Internet, with all the empowering access to information and learning that that implies? No, they’re going to be connected to Facebook. This is undoubtedly going to push upwards the percentage of Facebook users that don’t realise that they are using the Internet, that there’s more to it.

Is someone from Facebook going to educate them about data protection? It’s unlikely. And while many of the targeted areas have stable governments, not all do. Facebook and the ISP operators are going to have a lot of data about private individuals who don’t understand the economic or even the political risks. It’s easy to understand the concern of the human rights organizations.

Facebook’s main interest may well genuinely be to bring the advantages and empowerment of the Internet to places where it is sorely needed. We can all agree that that would be a good thing. However, it’s worth noting that Internet.org is not a non-profit project. It is part of Facebook, which is definitely a for-profit organization. And unless Facebook is careful and back-tracks on the walled-garden strategy, perhaps itself paying for greater access for the developing world (a fair exchange, given the profitable data it will be gathering), too much data and too much influence will begin to attract unwanted attention from activists and even anti-monopoly governing institutions. Facebook’s reach is currently so great that it is very unlikely that any one governing institution could by itself do it harm. But Facebook’s influence rests on its users. A skilled handling of abuse-of-power stories by influential media could spook users enough for them to either insist on a change in policy, or to vote with their fingers.

Facebook is powerful, for now. But public opinion is fickle, and loyalty these days is so easy to lose. It is a business, it has a right to do what it needs to do to grow. But as Spiderman said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” And I’m sure that Facebook will find that goodwill, generosity and humility are a very good investment.

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