Song and others believe it’s most likely that mobile-network operators would be open to implementing his idea in areas of the developing world—where there are a significant number of people who still don’t have the Internet. This is already happening to some extent: In India, the telecommunications company Aircel says it will offer free Internet at 64 kilobits per second beginning in the fall. And T-Mobile has offered free 2G data roaming overseas.
“For developing countries, this is extremely feasible, and it’s something that probably is going to happen,” said Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum. “But in a more developed part of the world, I think it’s very, very difficult because the incentive is not there.”
Although there are still people in the United States who aren’t Internet users—some 15 percent of the adult population, according to Pew—network operators have several reasons not to offer free, low-bitrate access to the mobile web in America, Dixon said. Upfront costs might be minimal, but diminished access to data—the deep well of personal information collected about people when they go online—would be a big deterrent. In other words, if people opted for free access that’s slower and more basic instead of paying for more expensive high-speed connections, less data would be collected about them.
“If you can monetize the metadata of what are people looking at—who is this person, what information can we sell about this person—the data itself that’s passing through this network becomes just a high-volume business goldmine for them.”
However, there is still a chance, Dixon and others told me, that a small upstart mobile-network operator would offer free basic Internet as a way to disrupt the market in the United States. “There’s more room at the bottom of the market,” Dixon said.
“I mean, if there’s a will there’s a way,” said Josh Levy, the advocacy director at Access Now, a group that focuses on the intersection of human rights and digital rights. “I’ve suggested a very, very low-data package of like 50 megabytes per month that let’s people at least access the Internet and see what the possibilities are. But I don’t expect to see that happen from a [mobile network] operator. That kind of big-picture strategy has always come from the platforms like Facebook and Google and Mozilla ... And what I think the India decision from earlier this month showed is they kind of have to go back to the drawing board to figure it out.”
Song, for his part, is hopeful that the Free Basics quagmire represents an opening for mobile-network operators to rethink their role in all this. Regulators could even offer incentives for operators to step in, he says. “If you had a very forward-thinking regulator, they might say, ‘We’ll cover your risk for, say, the first three years.’”
“The Internet, like most technologies, it’s a multiplier,” Song told me. “It can multiply good, and it can multiply bad. But if you have no access, anything multipled by zero: It’s still zero.”