Why do activists celebrate Zero Rated Facebook being pulled out of emerging economies?

Posted on May 2, 2018  /  0 Comments

Today, I had an email from Sanjana Hattotuwa forwarding me a news article that talked of how Zero Rated Facebook was quietly withdrawing from many markets.  The article attributed the pull back by Facebook to the harsh criticism Facebook had received globally as a platform for hate speech, fake news and so on.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Free-Basics is a free platform (i.e. no data charges are incurred when you use it), and inside the platform there was a range of content, the most popular of which was a free version of Facebook called Facebook Flex (perilously it was called Facebook Zero). Basically, most people used Free Basics because it enabled them to use a free, image- and video-free version of Facebook which worked reasonably well under low-bandwidth conditions over a feature phone.

Sanjana’s email asked if I was aware of this. I was, since we had seen Facebook pulling out it’s Zero Rated Facebook for a while – for example, it was the second week of September 2017 that we saw the free version being taken out of the market in Myanmar. But since the whole issue is something we have been researching, writing and speaking about for awhile (for example “Zero Rating in Emerging Economies” and “Navigating the Walled Garden: Free and subsidised data use in Myanmar“), I couldn’t just email a short “yes i am aware” reply to Sanjana, and wrote a somewhat long email response.  Here it is, with some editing:
Yes I’m aware of FB pulling out. Reasons could be that:

a) it’s not profitable because people just use it but don’t become paying customers,  

b) they don’t need to offer a subsidised version because people are on the full version of Facebook anyway and paying for the the data connection to use Facebook,

c) the recent criticism of its role in spreading hate-speech and fake news has indeed been taken to heart by Facebook and they think they should shut down the free version, and

d) a host of other reasons.  

I suspect b) or d).  My guess is b) is still relevant, because we know Facebook is essentially the killer app on the Internet in many countries – when people say they are using the Internet, often they mean they are using Facebook. Yes, many have written about how they are closing their FB accounts thanks to the recent revelations (of alleged election tampering, data breaches a la Cambridge Analytica etc,), but it’s still highly used in our part of the world. The reasons for FB Zero pulling out could be anything. We (and our research partners at Research ICT Africa) have always said that use of Facebook Zero (the free version) is just one of many strategies that people (in the poor countries we work in) use to save money, and that it is probably a passing market trend/offering that is short lived.  So this is not surprising news, frankly.    

But more relevant is the articles mistaken premise that somehow Free Basic/Facebook Zero/Flex was “responsible” for violence. If anything, it is Facebook (the full version of Facebook, where horrific images and videos were shared) that is a bigger culprit or conduit, not so much the picture-less/video-less Zero Rated Facebook version. So suddenly celebrating the pull-out/failure of the Zero Rated Facebook, while the full version of  Facebook is alive and well is rather misguided. This is without comment on the whole issue of why everyone thinks a platform like Facbeook is the only way hate speech spreads, or that Facebook is the only entity that is “responsible” for people being killed. Traditional media has served as a channel for the same content – hate-mongering religious folk and politicians, long standing (hidden) anti-whatever-group sentiment, all these have existed for years or decades – but many have forgotten this or chosen to ignore it because these are much harder problems to solve. Banning Facebook is easy. Celebrating the pullout of Facebook Zero is even easier.

What we need from Facebook is for it to behave like a more responsible platform, and to use all tools including data analytics, local language reviewers who can respond to reports from the user community, and so on to make sure hate speech doesn’t spread through it. What we need from governments is for them to think of a multi-pronged actions which addresses the issue (hate speech/violence etc) at every level (where dealing with Facebook/Twitter is one part, of course, but just one of many things that need to be done). If both sides had been doing their job better, we wouldn’t have the incredible problematic reactions from governments whose only tool seems to be ban social media.

In fact the focus on (or near-obsession with) Zero Rated Facebook by activists has always been a problem. Not just in the past few months over hate speech in our region, but even three years ago when zero rating was a hot topic in India. All the problems activists talk about (lack of competition, potential platform lock-in, lack of security, data privacy violations, etc.) are in fact Facebook problems, not solely Facebook Zero problems. But three years ago in India they went after Facebook Zero for whatever reason. And this article (or the people quoted in it) does it again. When I said as much (i.e. that the focus should be on Facebook, not Zero Rated Facebook) at a panel at the GlobalVoices Summit last year in Colombo, an activists responded by saying something to the effect of “well, Zero Rated Facebook was the one that came to us as an issue. That’s why we went after it”.

It would be useful if we stop being distracted by passing phenomena and focus on the real questions. Below are some questions I keep thinking we need answers to. Maybe several good practices can be found:  
  1. What are the standards for a responsible Internet platforms when it comes to data privacy, security, hate speech and so on? How do we nudge platforms so that they adopt such standards? How do we nudge all other media (not just the Internet platforms) to adopt these standards? 
  2. What tools do regulators have (e.g. competition law) to ensure that media diversity is maintained, and platform lock-in is avoided at all stages of the Internet value chain? 
  3. What tools can be used by law enforcement to make sure violators are punished (for online AND offline crimes)? Are these tools adequate? If yes, why aren’t they used uniformly?  
  4. How do we educate people to increase media literacy? After all, fake news (or news!) and hate speech spreads through human action too (not just bots).
  5. What are the range of actions governments and civil society need to take to stop hate mongering offline (as well as online) ?

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