For much of the year Facebook has been under fire for trying to dress up its attempt to corner developing nation ad markets under the banner of selfless altruism. Facebook’s plan is relatively simple: through a program dubbed Free Basics, Facebook plans to offer developing markets a Zuckerburg-curated, walled garden version of the Internet, for free. Under Facebook’s vision of this program, Facebook becomes the axle around which online access (and therefore online advertising) spins for generations to come, with the tangential bonus of helping low-income communities get a taste of what online connectivity can offer.
But many critics have complained that such a model gives Facebook too much control. Partner companies quickly dropped out of the program, unhappy that Facebook got to decide which content was “zero rated” (exempted from wireless usage caps) and which wasn’t. Companies like Mozilla similarly argued that if Facebook was so keen on helping the poor, it should finance access to the actual internet. Others worried that having one company as a powerful gatekeeper not only poses problems for competition, innovation and speech, but helps create a central repository for subscriber data that would prove an irresistible target for hackers, governments, and oppressive regimes.
Facebook’s response to all of this criticism was to call these concerns extremist, and to imply that if you’re questioning Facebook’s motives, you’re hurting the poor.
The problem (for Facebook) is that as India spent much of the year trying to craft net neutrality rules, government regulators agreed with this criticism, suggesting that what Facebook was attempting was glorified collusion. This week, in a desperate attempt to sway the government toward Facebook’s AOL-esque vision, the company decided it would be a good idea to use Facebook users to automatically spam the Indian government. Users who logged in were greeted with a message that automatically sent a message to Indian regulators lamenting a “small group of vocal critics” trying to derail free Internet access:
Of course that “small, vocal group of critics” is in reality quite large. And they’re not looking to ban free Internet access from a billion people, they’re just smart enough to realize that what developing nations need is real infrastructure connecting people to the actual Internet at lower prices, not a bastardized version of AOL. Facebook has consistently tried to argue that if you oppose its vision of a curated walled garden you’re a villain preventing the poor from being connected. But that’s nonsense, and it doesn’t void the reality that Free Basics is a potentially harmful idea, dressed up to look like Mister Rogers.
Curiously, several Indian Facebook users who’ve received this message claim that by simply scrolling down the notice, Facebook sends your message to the government without your tacit approval:
Facebook also claims it “accidentally” spammed many users in the United States and the UK with the message, likely resulting in a few extra million “accidental” messages to Indian regulator Trai, which is busy fielding input from the public. You almost get the sense that Facebook’s…