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Inside Amazon's, Facebook's and Google's self-serving 'philanthropy'

Mike Elgan | Aug. 29, 2016
Tech giants don't want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than they do.

The World Economic Forum claims that around 4 billion people today don't have access to the internet. And 1 billion of them are in India.

That's far more people than the 3.2 billion who do have access. Those already accessing the Internet, for the most part, are probably already using Google and Facebook services, or have decided not to.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants, according to a recent PopSci feature, to "friend the rest of humanity." Toward that end, Facebook is "working to beam the Internet, via DIY transmitters, or drones and lasers, to the billions on the planet who do not yet have online access." Clearly Google wants those same people using Google services as well.

Facebook spins this effort as a kind of philanthropy. But as I detailed in this space in February, Facebook's Internet.org is not an "org" or nonprofit. It's just a business development group executing a customer acquisition strategy inside Facebook.

Both Facebook and Google tried to "friend the rest of humanity" with zero-rating schemes. (Zero-rating is when bandwidth is free as long as you're using a specific app or visiting a specific site.) They did this by partnering with local telecoms around the world to offer free internet access when people use the services that either Facebook or Google offer.

Facebook's approach involved a mobile website and app called Facebook Free Basics. While this began as a subsidy (provided by the carrier, not Facebook), it expanded into an America Online-like "internet lite" kind of offering, where any company wanting to get involved could offer a slimmed down version of its services, which were housed on Facebook servers instead of the regular internet.

At some point, Facebook claimed Free Basics was available in 38 countries, all of which were in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Today, it's not clear in how many countries it's still available. (Facebook didn't respond to my request for information.)

Facebook has struggled to get its "Free Basics" program accepted. India banned Facebook Free Basics as a violation of net neutrality. Egypt banned Free Basics because Facebook refused to allow the Egyptian government to use the app to spy on users. In Angola, software pirates hijacked the Wikipedia app inside Free Basics to share files illegally.

Despite setbacks, Facebook Free Basics is still in place and even expanding in some markets.

Meanwhile, Google's zero-rating scheme, called Free Zone, appears to have failed to make the world a better place, although this fact has not been reported before, to the best of my knowledge. (Google did not respond to my request for information.)

I contacted most of Google's Free Zone telecom partners. Some refused comment, but others said the program was now defunct. A representative with Kenya's Safaricom even told me that Free Zone in that country was just a 3-month promotion in 2014 and is no longer in operation.

 

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