Facebook and the New Colonialism
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
The kerfuffle elicited a torrent of criticism for Andreessen, but the connection he made—between Facebook’s global expansion and colonialism—is nothing new. Which probably helps explain why Zuckerberg felt the need to step in, and which brings us back to Free Basics. The platform, billed by Facebook as a way to help people connect to the Internet for the first time, offers a stripped-down version of the mobile web that people can use without it counting toward their data-usage limit.
“I’m loath to toss around words like colonialism but it’s hard to ignore the family resemblances and recognizable DNA, to wit,” said Deepika Bahri, an English professor at Emory University who focuses on postcolonial studies. In an email, Bahri summed up those similarities in list form:
1. ride in like the savior
2. bandy about words like equality, democracy, basic rights
3. mask the long-term profit motive (see 2 above)
4. justify the logic of partial dissemination as better than nothing
5. partner with local elites and vested interests
6. accuse the critics of ingratitude
“In the end,” she told me, “if it isn’t a duck, it shouldn’t quack like a duck.”
In India, where Free Basics has been the subject of a long, public debate, plenty of people already rejected the platform precisely because of its colonialist overtones. “We’ve been stupid with the East India Company,” one Reddit user said in a forum about Free Basics last year, referring to the British Raj. “Never again brother, Never again!”
“I see the project as both colonialist and deceptive,” Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, told me. “It tries to solve a problem it doesn’t understand, but it doesn’t need to understand the problem because it already knows the solution. The solution conveniently helps lock in Facebook as the dominant platform for the future at a moment when growth in developed markets is slowing.”
Before we go any further, let’s unpack the two discordant narratives that underscore this debate.
Facebook characterizes its intentions like this: Humans have a fundamental right to access the Internet. A platform that provides limited access is much better than nothing. Facebook isn’t motivated by business interests because the Free Basics version of the social network doesn’t even feature advertisements. And Facebook isn’t exerting undue control on people’s web experiences (or squelching other sites) because half the people who try Free Basics end up paying for full access to the web within a month anyway. As Zuckerberg put it in an op-ed for The Times of India in December: “Who could possibly be against this?”
Well, here’s the other side of the argument: When mobile-network operators allow some companies to offer access to their sites without charging people for data use, it gives those companies an unfair advantage. Free Basics makes Facebook a gatekeeper with too much leverage—so much that it conflicts with the foundational principles of the open web. Those principles, and what people mean when they talk about net neutrality, can be summed up this way: Internet service providers should treat all content equally, without favoring certain sites or platforms over others.
And doesn’t the fact that so many people upgrade to the full Internet so soon after trying Free Basics dismantle the claim that Facebook isn’t looking at the platform as a way to expand its global user base? People may start with an ad-free version of the site, but they quickly graduate to regular old ad-peppered, data-gathering Facebook.
All this raises a question about who Free Basics is actually for, which may further hint at Facebook’s motivations. Sumanth Raghavendra, an app developer and startup founder in India, points to this commercial for Free Basics—from back when it was still branded under the larger umbrella of Facebook’s Internet.org project—as representative of the local marketing for the platform.
“If you are awestruck by how cool India’s ‘poorest’ folks seem to be, don’t be …because these folks, the target audience for Free Basics, are far from being India’s poor!” Raghavendra wrote in an essay for Medium. “As is plainly obvious, the original target audience of Free Basics was not India’s poorest who have never come online but far more so, students and millennials to whom the hook was about surfing for free.”
As of October, one of India’s biggest mobile carriers said 1 million people had signed up for Free Basics. But only about 20 percent of Free Basics users weren’t previously using the Internet, Facebook told the Press Trust of India, the country’s largest news agency. (Facebook didn’t immediately respond to my request for comment and more recent numbers.) In other words, the vast majority of the people who used Free Basics already had Internet connections.
“Free Basics was hardly something aimed at poor people and even less so, targeted at people who have ‘no connectivity,’” Raghavendra wrote. “This entire narrative painting it as a choice between some connectivity and no connectivity is false and disingenuous.”
“There is absolutely no need to offer a condescending promise based on altruism to bring these folks online,” he added. “They will do so on their own time and at their own pace with or without any external help or artificial incentive.”
Zuckerman, from MIT, is even more pointed: “When Zuckerberg or Andreessen face criticism, they argue that their critics are being elitist and inhumane—after all, who could be against helping India develop? The rhetoric is rich with the White Man’s Burden.”
Some of the colonialist subtext in all this evokes what the writer Courtney Martin calls the “reductive seduction” of Americans wanting to save the world, and the hubris that underscores this kind of supposed problem solving. “There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity,” Martin wrote.
Representations of colonialism have long been present in digital landscapes. (“Even Super Mario Brothers,” the video game designer Steven Fox told me last year. “You run through the landscape, stomp on everything, and raise your flag at the end.”) But web-based colonialism is not an abstraction. The online forces that shape a new kind of imperialism go beyond Facebook.
Consider, for example, digitization projects that focus primarily on English-language literature. If the web is meant to be humanity’s new Library of Alexandria, a living repository for all of humanity’s knowledge, this is a problem. So is the fact that the vast majority of Wikipedia pages are about a relatively tiny square of the planet. For instance, 14 percent of the world’s population lives in Africa, but less than 3 percent of the world’s geotagged Wikipedia articles originate there, according to a 2014 Oxford Internet Institute report.
“This uneven distribution of knowledge carries with it the danger of spatial solipsism for the people who live inside one of Wikipedia’s focal regions,” the researchers of that report wrote. “It also strongly underrepresents regions such as the Middle East and North Africa as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. In the global context of today’s digital knowledge economies, these digital absences are likely to have very material effects and consequences.”
Consider, too, the dominant business models online. Companies commodify people as users, mining them for data and personally targeting them with advertising. “In digital capitalism—another stage of imperialism?—capital and corporation underwrite free-ness,” Bahri, the Emory professor, told me. “That’s why Facebook can claim to be always free.”
Incidentally, “users” is a term that Facebook now discourages, favoring “people” instead. Though “users” was, at least, an improvement over “dumb fucks,” which is what Zuckerberg called the people who signed up for Facebook when it was new, according to online chat transcripts that emerged as part of a lawsuit several years ago.
In 2010, Zuckerberg told The New Yorker he had “grown and learned a lot” since then. “If you’re going to go on to build a service that is influential and that a lot of people rely on, then you need to be mature, right?” he said at the time.
A lot of people, in 2010, meant Facebook’s 400 million users. Since then, that number has quadrupled to 1.6 billion people—the vast majority of them connecting to the site via mobile. Last year, Facebook’s market cap crossed the $300 billion threshold. Earnings statements show it made more than $5.8 billion in ad revenue in 2015, with more than 80 percent of that money—some $4.6 billion—coming from mobile ads.
Facebook is already, it is often said, eating the Internet. So it’s easy to see why Internet.org was rebranded as Free Basics. The old name sounded too much like a reflection of what Facebook actually is: a dominant and possibly unstoppable force, a private company exerting enormous influence on public access to the web. “The great social network of the early 21st century is laying the groundwork,” Austin Carr wrote for Fast Company in 2014, “for a platform that could make Facebook a part of just about every social interaction that takes place around the world.”
Free Basics might be stoppable. But is Facebook?
“It is an uncomfortable truth that, in emerging economies, Facebook had already won the Internet well before Internet.org and the FreeBasics campaign began,” Steve Song, a telecommunications policy activist, wrote in a blog post this week. “Facebook became the de facto Internet for many people because it did the most profoundly useful thing the Internet can do: Connect people.”