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Facebook brings internet dialtone to Zambia

ITEM: Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg’s “Internet dialtone” is now online in Zambia via a new app released by Internet.org for subscribers of Bharti subsidiary Airtel.

The Internet.org app – which is designed for both smartphones and feature phones with web browsers – is essentially a portal that provides free access to a number of web services. Naturally that includes Facebook and Facebook Messenger (as well as Airtel’s mobile site), but it also includes Google Search, Wikipedia, AccuWeather, and sites for information ranging from health and hygiene (via UNICEF) and jobs to government info and legal advice on women’s rights.

Airtel customers can access the services in the Internet.org Android app, at internet.org, or within the Facebook for Android app. Internet.org plans to release the app to other markets in the future after using its initial experience in Zambia to tweak the service.

Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post: “Right now, only 15% of people in Zambia have access to the internet. Soon, everyone will be able to use the internet for free to find jobs, get help with reproductive health and other aspects of health, and use tools like Facebook to stay connected with the people they love. This is a big step forward in achieving the mission of Facebook and Internet.org.”

That mission, you’ll recall, is to essentially leverage mobile to connect the unconnected (i.e. around 70% of the world population) to the internet with free basic services such as the ones included in this app. But it’s also intended as an entry-level stepping stone to the “real” internet, says Guy Rosen, product management director at Internet.org: “By providing free basic services via the app, we hope to bring more people online and help them discover valuable services they might not have otherwise.”

Put another way, once people try the basic, stripped-down version of internet services and see the value in them, they’ll be more willing to pay for the real thing. That’s certainly what Airtel is banking on in the long term. It’s also good for Facebook and Google and other web companies who can grow their user bases in the process. Even if users don’t upgrade, they still get to leverage data services that can only help to improve their daily life. Everyone wins.

Or maybe not. While most pundits agree that the unconnected benefit greatly from getting online, some argue there are risks and tradeoffs that shouldn’t go overlooked. 

David Meyer at GigaOm, for example, notes that channeling services through a single portal creates the risk of government censorship and undermines privacy (by centralizing collection of user data as they access these services). It also raises net neutrality issues by creating a walled garden for people who can’t afford to pay their way out of it:

If users don’t pay up to exit the walled garden (and for many, why would they?) then it stymies any rival web service, by making it harder for people to find them, let alone use them. In other words, zero-rating entrenches powerful monopolies, hurts competition and potentially slows down innovation.

That may sound a little overwrought for a project intended to provide internet access for people who can’t afford it. On the other hand, as TechCrunch has pointed out, it may be no coincidence that Twitter isn’t included in the app.

Wired’s Mat Honan adds that the Internet.org app amounts to “an internet for poor people:

Giving free access to people who could not previously afford it is a Very Good Thing. Undoubtedly. No question. But an internet for poor people that in any way provides less access than the full-throated internet those of us reading this enjoy? That’s troubling. It’s another digital divide.

That doesn’t mean that the Internet.org app is a bad idea. (And to be clear, neither Meyer nor Honan is saying it is. They’re just balancing the pros with the potential cons, although Meyer’s talk of “Faustian" bargains is a little overdramatic.) I gather that the long-term view is that the more people you get online in emerging markets, the more their economic situation will eventually improve to the point where they can afford the “real” internet, even if it’s on a prepaid per-app basis. And you have to start somewhere. So why not with a free portal in Zambia?

Still, point taken. Connecting the unconnected is a noble goal – even if you’re doing it for business reasons – but it’s worth remembering that connecting them is just the first step, not the end game, and there's always room for missteps and unintended consequences.