Facebook, Google & Net Neutrality

It was in Indonesia three years ago that Helani Galpaya first noticed the anomaly. Indonesians surveyed by Galpaya told her that they didn't use the internet. But in focus groups, they would talk enthusiastically about how much time they spent on Facebook, writes Leo Mirani in an interesting article in Quartz. Facebook needs no introduction. It has become ubiquitous. An extension of our life. Just like Google. But do you know there are Facebook users who actually have no idea that they are on the Internet despite spending hours together on the social network? It's as if the Internet, the open expanse of web that connects every one of us in the virtual world, doesn't exist for them. Instead it's just Facebook, a closed, proprietary network that makes millions in revenues from the data you feed into it. Just like Google.

The search giant with its humongous user base is another big closed network too, possessing boundless powers (thanks to its PageRank algorithm) and capable of destroying your business just because your website won't turn up in its search results. Just because that's the search engine people turn to find anything on the web. Good thing we have alternatives like DuckDuckGo! With debates surrounding net neutrality, an idea of free and fair internet that prohibits any sort of online discrimination, reaching a fever pitch, both Google and Facebook have embarked on highly ambitious projects to cost-effectively connect all the people in the world, particularly those living in developing nations.

Google's Project Loon, which involves placing high-altitude balloons in the upper atmosphere to create an aerial wireless network, is an insane idea if you think about it. A classic Google moonshot. On the other hand, Facebook's Internet.org app, that provides free access to a selective, or rather restrictive, list of 38 websites by partnering with mobile network operators in a practice called zero rating, is more practical and has already seen the light of the day in Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Colombia and Ghana, with India recently joining the list. Using the app allows users to browse Bing, AccuWeather, BBC News, and a clutch of other white-listed services for free, but will incur data charges to access Google search, Yahoo Weather, or any other local alternatives. That begs us to ask the question: On what basis are these services selected, or even better, is Internet.org really an altruistic attempt by the company?

Or is it another exercise in profit-seeking in the long run by locking people into its walled garden? What impact will this distorted view of the web, or this limited version of the internet, pose to unsuspecting first-time adopters? Leo Mirani, in fact, sums it all up perfectly: This is more than a matter of semantics. The expectations and behaviors of the next billion people to come online will have profound effects on how the internet evolves. If the majority of the world’s online population spends time on Facebook, then policymakers, businesses, startups, developers, nonprofits, publishers, and anyone else interested in communicating with them will also, if they are to be effective, go to Facebook. That means they, too, must then play by the rules of one company. And that has implications for us all.