By the Blouin News Technology staff progress fuels debate

by in Personal Tech.

Deeq Ahmed Shire on his phone in Somalia. AU UN IST PHOTO/ David Mutua

Deeq Ahmed Shire on his phone in Somalia. AU UN IST PHOTO/ David Mutua

Facebook appears to be ramping up its project in a concrete way, even as the the controversy around the company’s initiative grows. aims to give people access to “relevant basic internet services without data charges” according to Facebook. The first country to gain access to the app was Zambia in July 2014. Since then, Facebook has worked with dozens of mobile operators in multiple countries to bring free mobile networks to new users only. The app provides access to a set of basic websites and services such as health, education, and finance-related information.

The company announced this week that, in coordination with telco Bharti Airtel, it will launch the web access platform in 17 African countries in phases by March 2016. Airtel Africa has been working with Facebook since last year, and will aim to bring the free service to countries including the DRC and Niger over the course of the next few months.

Additionally, Facebook has filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission asking for special authority to test “applications for air to ground communications in the E-band” meaning it is advancing on its drone-based internet development. The company is using “experimental” technology made by defense contractor Raytheon.

In the face of these well-publicized developments, opposition to gains momentum. Many see Facebook’s initiative not for its intent to deliver internet to those without it, but to plant a foothold in certain countries with its brand and impose a sort of cultural hegemony. They claim that Facebook’s internet is not really the internet at all, but rather access to a few dozen sites and services. It does not further the mission of anyone or organization who promotes the “free and open” internet. In fact — they believe — it is a version of access that Facebook will provide thereby establishing itself as a provider while also acting as the arbiter of content.

Critics adds that Facebook is actually doing a disservice to these populations it reaches with its internet delivery because it is not establishing infrastructure, but instead bouncing off of other providers’ infrastructure. The argument is that providing internet for free in areas where there are no other internet providers with whom to compete actually damages infrastructure build-out. No competition will mean Facebook technically will dominate those regions, and its brand of internet will be the only type of connectivity users in those places will know.

Whether or not you support or oppose Facebook’s efforts, it is impossible to discount the fact that millions more people now have access to any information on the web, even if it is a stripped-down, filtered version. As Facebook expands the project, the controversy will no doubt continue to simmer.