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<nettime> Mahesh Murthy: Facebook's new internet.org is evil
nettime's_public-private-partnership on Sun, 15 Nov 2015 23:01:49 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Mahesh Murthy: Facebook's new internet.org is evil


< https://www.techinasia.com/talk/facebooks-internetorg-evil/ >

Mahesh Murthy

12:15 pm on Nov 15, 2015

Facebook's new internet.org is evil

	About author: Mahesh is one of India's better-known VCs - and a reputed
	marketer. He founded Seedfund, India's best-performing VC fund &
	Pinstorm -- a digital brand firm. He's also the most followed Indian on
	Quora. (more about Mahesh)

Why is Mark Zuckerberg so concerned about his 'charity' initiative that
he had to re-jig it in the face of opposition, star in another
breathless video about it, and start a misleading campaign about it
among users in India? Bear with me, it's an interesting story.

Facebook is in a bit of a jam, and opposition to this one pet project in
India is probably pointing to the seams of a larger story worldwide. But
it all starts with a simple pair of numbers.

A rocky road on Wall Street

Facebook has about the same number of users as Google: about 1.4
billion. That's one out of five people on earth. And the social network
made US$12.4 billion off them last year -- that's about US$ 8.65 per
person on their service.

While Google made $66 billion off about the same number of people --
almost $46 per head -- a revenue efficiency more than 5 times that of
Facebook. And that gap isn't narrowing nearly fast enough.

Revenue growth to support Facebook's stratospheric stock price at 60
times earnings is a big challenge, I'd imagine. Oh, and even at 5 times
the revenue efficiency, Google's Price-to-Earnings (P/E) ratio is less
than half of Facebook's -- so the pressure on the Facebook stock price
can only increase with time.

There's only so much you can squeeze out of the first world -- the
current billion or so people -- even though Facebook has cut virality,
decreased organic reach and tried every which way of getting someone,
anyone to pay more for visibility on its once-open social network. A
more desperate measure was probably needed.

What they realized they needed to do -- for their own future and that of
their stock price -- was to look beyond these 1.4 billion people to find
new users. And, at the same time, to stop these new users from going
over to their rivals in Mountain View, California.

These new users are in China, India and the rest of the developing
world. China has locked Facebook out. India, with a billion people yet
to get on the net is probably seen as the great white hope for the
future of this stock.

Hey poor people, please don't Google

Enter Internet.Org. A clever strategy was announced with fanfare last
year under the guise of an apparent not-for-profit mission "to connect
the unconnected on earth". The world welcomed the new face of Mark
Zuckerberg, twenty-something billionaire philanthropist.

The Facebook CEO visited India, had the obligatory photo-op with the
Prime Minister, and it was only a few months later that one figured out
what the effort was all about.

Looking under the hood has actually shown a different reality. First,
there's no NGO. This is just a division of Facebook. Second, it is
absolutely for-profit in every way. There is no not-for-profit part of
it whatsoever. Third, as you'll figure out: this is really the "Facebook
Poor People Acquisition Department".

And fourth, it's not just about pushing Facebook down the throats of the
unwired -- but it's also about making sure they don't get a taste of
Google or any other big boy in the process.

So who's outside the first 1.4 billion?

These are mostly poor folks -- but a growing number of them have mobile
phones. Today, you get data-enabled handsets for as little as $50
without a contract. And in India at least, the largest number of these
users are on the pre-paid model -- people topping up their phones with
an average of $2 or so a month to pay for voice and data.

One can convincingly argue that these folks are most in need of true,
open internet connectivity.

If you want them to come out of their poverty in the fastest way
possible, you'd want to make the widest and best resources of the
internet open to them. Their education, careers and futures depend on
having the same access to the information that we all -- Zuckerberg
included -- have grown up on and take for granted.

You can imagine that a poor kid in a Chhatisgarh village in central
India should be able to see Khan Academy videos, her Dad should be able
to look up agricultural spot prices on Google or a commodity exchange
and perhaps her Mom could look for a better-paying job at a top job
board.

But natch, none of these are part of the so-called "Internet" that
Facebook offers the poor. Videos in fact, are not available at all,
presumably to conserve bandwidth so it can be retained for more
important things like villagers sending each other Candy Crush requests.

Because internet.org isn't really about social service at all

Internet.Org: a lie in name and in intent.

This Facebook effort is neither about the Internet, and nor is it a
".org" -- the traditional domain for a not-for-profit.

It's just about acquiring folks from the bottom of the pyramid as
Facebook users. So Facebook can, over time, get that $8.65 more for each
of them, while at the same time making sure that Google doesn't get
their $46 from each of them.

I'm no apologist for Google -- but it's interesting that the world's
gateway to the internet doesn't feature in 10 of the 11 countries this
Facebook effort runs in. And in the 11th, it runs in a way the user can
search Google from within the free-data service -- but has to pay for
data to see the search results. Quite pointless, really.

But it's not just Google. There's no Alibaba, there's no Amazon, there's
no eBay. No place these folks can buy, or sell or trade. There's no Kiva
or other bottom-of-pyramid money service. No loans they can receive. No
government sites, no banks. No Coursera or EdX or Khan Academy -- so
it's not about education either.

Forget about entertainment -- there's absolutely none of that. And no
LinkedIn, of course. You name any possible site of importance to someone
who needs information and opportunities, and it's not there. But, hey, I
guess they you can always poke folks in the next village!

Earlier, there was no system to how Facebook picked the sites it would
feature alongside itself in its so-called "free internet package". It
was entirely arbitrary. They were raked over the coals for this crime
among greater ones. But then, selectively facing only this criticism,
Zuckerberg announced version 2.0 of the product -- where all else
remains the same, but where an app that wanted to be part of Facebook's
cabal could submit itself through a lead form to be "considered for
acceptance".

This is basically rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic -- not that
this makes much of any difference to the basic problem.

It's the Splinternet!

In reality, this is an effort to splinter the internet. To create a
gulag of unimportant sites alongside the 800-pound gorilla Facebook. And
to capture the poor and the needy for free inside, so they could be
hooked on this free cocaine of chat and profiles forever; and not
discover the actual internet that lies outside these walls.

So the real internet outside, where other sites that can be more useful
to these users, or make more money from them than Facebook can, can
never touch them.

That's exactly what's happened in Kenya and Indonesia -- where people
say they're not on the Internet, but they're on Facebook. Or worse, that
yes, Facebook means the internet.

The internet by definition is a vast collection of interlinked sites --
over a billion of them, at last count. And Facebook offers about
0.0000002% of this to the user. With none of the new ones that come up
around the world virtually every minute being added to that list.

Where's the public interest?

I've been asked -- hey, what's your problem? It's capitalism. Let it be.
0.00000002% is better than 0%, right?

Actually, I don't believe so. Let Facebook pull its stunt. Then Google
will. So will Twitter. And eBay. And each telco. And each e-com company.
And soon we'll have hundreds of thousands of different so-called
internets around the world used by a handful of people each who can't
talk or connect to each other. Instead of one internet of a billion and
growing sites, always connected to each other.

We can't give up the essentially connected nature of the internet --
something I believe is critical to a thriving future for our planet --
just because Zuckerberg needs to get his revenues up and stock price
from crashing.

Further, this is public property we're talking about. My point is
straight-forward. In most of the developing world, there is little
landline- or cable-based internet access, which may be privately-owned
and where, one could argue, the owner of the network can do damn well as
they please. This was Comcast's defence, I believe, which was outlawed
in the US anyway. Most of the access in this part of the planet is via
the mobile phone. And these phones connect on spectrum owned by the
government and the people of those countries.

Spectrum that is licensed by these governments to private and public
telecom operators under certain terms and conditions. So what conditions
should the government apply here?

The issue is new because these stunts are new. But a bunch of us are
trying to lobby the Indian government to clearly demand that all
spectrum users MUST allow equal and non-discriminatory internet access
to all users to the fullest extent allowable by law. We believe if India
legislates this, the rest of the world can learn from this and follow
suit. And stop this dirty masters-of-the-universe type deed from
happening.

We'd like the government to disallow differentiated internet experiences
engineered by providers -- so Comcast's roasting of Netflix' nuts over a
fire till they coughed up money to get normal bandwidth speeds restored
would never happen in India.

To not allow this, ever, on government-owned spectrum at least. And to
not allow zero-rating services on spectrum either -- which is what the
Facebook Poor People Acquisition Program is, which denies users access
to 99.99999998% of the world's websites.

A million emails were sent to regulators in India -- unprecedented, in
fact -- to encourage them to make the right decision. The government
seems to have woken up to the fact that the internet could be broken and
fragmented under its nose and has started making somewhat conciliatory
noises.

But the fight is far from over

The telcos have fought back with a misleading consumer missed-call
campaign, to try get some semblance of public support in their favour.
Facebook has started a desperate effort -- not called Internet.org any
more here, but "Connect India" -- and is pushing it to the inboxes and
news feeds of all Indians on the service. It has also -- oh mother of
ironies -- started a Change.org petition in its favour to counter the
one started against it earlier.

They're the ones with the big bucks on their side. So we could yet lose.

All we have are a few words on screen, and perhaps the support of
readers like you. Guess this might just be the time for me to request
you to share or forward this piece :-)

No room for charity?

So is there no room for a well-meaning act? I have absolutely nothing
against charity -- if done with good intent and with no strings
attached. Or it just becomes the modern version of the missionary "I'll
feed you only if you accept my God as yours too" Faustian bargain.

If Facebook's founder truly wants to be seen as a future Nobel Peace
Prize winner, sure -- then arrange with telcos to give away bandwidth. A
half a gig or even a gig of net usage free to users every month where
they can go wherever they want online. I understand Mozilla and other
folks feel this way too. And to not restrict users to only sites that
the Facebook tech team "considers for acceptance". In fact, to not even
force people to use Facebook with their free bandwidth.

That would be an amazing act. Are you listening, Mark?

I do hope better sense -- and failing which, public pressure prevails.
Not this dirty bargain called Internet.Org version 2, where they're
seducing the poor user into accepting a substandard and shoddy sliver of
the internet. And denying them opportunities that they, like every other
human being in the first world, truly deserve.

I do believe that, in the long run, the stock price of a company
reflects what the public thinks of them more than just the discounted
cash flow generated by future earnings.

>From that point of view too, here's an appeal to Facebook: Shut this
internet.org thing down, guys. It stinks.

Thank you.


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