Facebook and the New Colonialism – The Atlantic

9 months ago Comments Off on Facebook and the New Colonialism – The Atlantic

“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 Civil 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.

Facebook and the New Colonialism – The Atlantic