Is Free Basics’ Internet Access Really Worth it?

Academic Freedom, Computers, General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Social Justice

By: Joyce Johnston

Facebook’s newest U. S. project, Free Basics, sounds like a dream offer for cash-strapped school districts, especially those in its target demographic of poorer rural areas. Internet access would be zero-rated (regulator-speak for “free”).

According to Facebook for Developers, Free Basics would provide access to “news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information,” all topics that educators and their communities care about sharing with children and their families. Free Basics would curate its collection so that it offered only pre-approved websites, comforting schools concerned about filtering internet content, especially for its youngest students.

Free Basics by Facebook
Facebook’s Free Basics provides “free” internet access to news, but relies on cellphones and pre-approved websites.

And therein lie key issues for educators. Free Basics is not even truly free, since its base model depends upon providing internet to users who already own cellphones. Rural areas often have spotty coverage, even if a low-income family can afford either the phone or its data plan. Would schools now struggling to provide computer labs simply have to shift to funding phones and monitoring students’ use of their personal devices, while guaranteeing coverage?

More importantly, Free Basics is not intellectually free either because it is not the same as full internet access.

“It’s an application that connects people to internet-like services but doesn’t connect them to the open internet itself,” said Timothy Karr, senior strategy director at Free Press and Free Press Action Fund, to The Guardian. “It’s worrying when you have a company as powerful as Facebook inserting itself as a gatekeeper to the online world.”

Facebook counters that any company, no matter how small, can apply to have its app included in Free Basics — an obvious attempt to appeal to President Obama’s support for net neutrality in schools as well as commerce. (Obama has stressed that “access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.”) No matter the source of an app though, at some point someone will have to decide whether to include it in Free Basics. That “someone” is Facebook, and Facebook is, after all, a commercial giant with a vested interest in expanding its U.S. user base.

A related concern — and a serious one for social studies teachers and librarians — is that Facebook is currently under fire for the “fake news” that regularly appears in its Breaking News. Right now, trending topics are identified and posted not by editors or news staff, but by an algorithm that can’t tell the difference between real news and spoofs, satires or opinion pieces. While the situation may provide some hilarious teachable moments for high schoolers, reliable information should be expected from Free Basics’ claim to provide it.

So what’s an underfunded education system to do? In offering Free Basics, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has expressed a lofty goal.

“We know that when people have access to the internet they also get access to jobs, education, healthcare, communication,” Zuckerberg writes in a blog post for The Times of India. “We know that for every 10 people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty.”

The question for educators is, who is going to control that crucial access?

 


Joyce Johnston has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years. While on the Executive Committee for the 700-person World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (a/k/a/ EdMedia), she serves on task forces on undergraduate research, evaluation of digital instruction and community wellbeing at George Mason University. Early entry into online instruction led to fascination with educators’ construction of their virtual identities, then most recently to a growing concern over ownership of that identity. She is currently tracking two related issues: first, the ways that the EU’s right to delist (better known as “the right to be forgotten”) allows its citizens to expurgate their digital profiles worldwide. Second, she monitors the collapse of the EU-US Safe Harbor agreement, which means that no one knows what personal data can be collected from employees of multinational corporations and schools, or how that data may be used.

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