A battle over net neutrality? Or between haves and have-nots?

While Facebook attempts to connect the two-thirds of the world without Internet access, it faces a growing backlash. What is the 'net neutrality' debate really about?

Jeff Chiu/AP/File
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., last March. On Wednesday, Mr. Zuckerberg announced his company's intentions to get more of the world's 7 billion people online through, a partnership with some of the world’s largest mobile technology companies.

'Net neutrality' – the philosophy that Internet service providers should not throttle, block, or discriminate between different websites or online services – was once thought to be too bland an idea for a general audience to grasp. But after several comedians took up the cause, it’s now one of the most hotly debated topics about the Internet and has since become a major PR problem for Facebook. 

The social media giant’s project offers free Internet access to people in developing countries, but the service is limited to only certain websites, such as Facebook and Wikipedia. While Facebook saw this as a noble way to get more people using its social network, the plan is facing growing criticism in India after a viral video argued for net neutrality and led many to believe the company was threatening the notion of it. Now, India's campaign against has spread to other countries, pushing multiple companies to back out of their partnerships with Facebook's free service.

In an open letter to Facebook’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerburg, a large group of net neutrality advocates urged the company to reconsider the way it is going about providing access.

“It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services,” the letter says. “In its present conception, thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.”

A Facebook spokesperson responded to these accusations via email to The Monitor:

We and our critics share a common vision of helping more people gain access to the broadest possible range of experiences and services on the internet. We are convinced that as more and more people gain access to the internet, they will see the benefits and want to use even more services. We believe this so strongly that we have worked with operators to offer basic services to people at no charge, convinced that new users will quickly want to move beyond basic services and pay for more diverse, valuable services.

The group’s main compliant is the "two-tiered" Internet pay system. This means that users will only be able to view a basic form of the Web, including health information, local sports, and Facebook. For full Internet access, those who use will have to pay a fee, which, some argue, violates the core values of an open access. The group sees this as discriminatory and believes information should not depend on the size of your wallet.

Facebook’s mission to connect the world to the Web spans over a dizzying amount of cultures and demographics, all of whom have a different relationship with technology. 

“You take a country like India: it's several different countries co-existing at the same time,” says Jaideep Prabhu, Jawaharlal Nehru professor of business and enterprise at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. “You have a 19th-century economy, people working in subsistence agriculture. You have a 20th kind of manufacturing economy, people living in, shall we say, urban slums [who are] relativity better off. And then you have people who are in the 21st century, living in a sort of switched-on Internet world, and very savvy about the issues.

Mr. Prabhu believes we are potentially witnessing the “clash” of these different economic models. He went on to explain that while the tech-savvy Indians are aware of power imbalances and net neutrality, those in so-called 20th or 19th century India are perhaps more likely to give up some of their rights for greater access. After all, you can’t miss what you never had.

“So if you look at those who are subsistence agriculturists, Facebook is very far from them, even the Internet is very far from them,” Prabhu says. "But then you have the 21st century people who already have access, and they are afraid that access and that freedom and that neutrality they have will be eroded in some way."

He adds that those with knowledge may feel they are in a better position to protect “the long-term rights of people who don’t understand these issues and who may be trading away their freedom today, in a very short-term way.” 

So while this debate may seem exclusively about net neutrality, Prabhu says it is actually a discussion among the haves and have-nots about how to introduce this essential tool to everyone, all while a for-profit company attempts to bridge the digital divide for them.

Arthur Gwagwa, international coordinator of Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO, says that, for his group, it is less that Facebook is explicitly attempting to mislead people who connect for the first time, and is more about the lack of knowledge those new users have. For someone who has never logged on before, they only know what the service providers tell them.

The issue of open access is incredibly complicated, says Mr. Gwagwa. His organization is one of the 67 that lent its name to the open letter, but he says that while all the advocacy groups “subscribe to the principles of net neutrality,” they do not agree on every aspect of this debate.

“I think within our group, we have actually been very strong in saying, ‘yes, I’m going to sign this letter because I believe in the principles, but [we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water],' ” Mr. Gwagwa says. “ is not for us, who are sitting in New York or sitting in Brazil, it’s for the poor people. The people that it is intended to benefit may actually have a totally different view [about net neutrality] all together.”

Gwagwa and Prabhu agree that Facebook isn’t offering free Internet access out of the kindness of its heart. 

“Facebook is not like the United Nations. Facebook is not there for charity. Facebook is a private corporation that is there to make profit just like BP [or] Shell,” Gwagwa says. “Of course, they should also have corporate and social responsibility, but they are there to make profit.”

Gwagwa believes advocates play an important part in protecting rights, especially for those who are not aware those rights have been taken away. But at the end of the day, it’s not Facebook's responsibility to provide the whole Internet for free, he says. “That is the duty of the government.”

Prabhu says that the “tradition in many emerging markets of being suspicion of multi-nationals” comes from a long history of companies acting “very dictatorially, where they may have come in and said, ‘we know what’s best and you take it or leave it.’ ” He believes these conversations among large corporations and activists are healthy, so long as they’re productive on both sides and don’t hinder progress.

For any company looking to survive in the 21st century, they can no longer ignore what the people are asking for. In fact, Gwagwa says Facebook is sitting down with his organization next week to discuss The only way to enter a new market is through education and transparency.

[Editor's Note: This article has been updated with a comment from Facebook and clarification.]

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