News / Science & Technology

    Facebook's Zuckerberg at Crossroads in Connecting the Globe

    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gestures during the Samsung Galaxy Unpacked 2016 event on the eve of this week’s Mobile World Congress wireless show, in Barcelona, Spain, Feb. 21, 2016.
    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gestures during the Samsung Galaxy Unpacked 2016 event on the eve of this week’s Mobile World Congress wireless show, in Barcelona, Spain, Feb. 21, 2016.
    Associated Press

    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg likes to boast that his three-year-old effort to bring the developing world online has reached millions of people in some of the world's poorest nations.
     
    But a central element of his Internet.org campaign was controversial even before it was shut down in a key market this month. Indian regulators banned one of the pillars of the campaign, a service known as Free Basics, because it provided access only to certain pre-approved services - including Facebook - rather than the full Internet.
     
    That leaves the social media mogul at a crossroads. Though he has vowed not to give up, Zuckerberg hasn't said whether he'll alter his approach. Facebook declined to make executives available for comment. Zuckerberg could shed light on his plans when he speaks Monday at Mobile World Congress, an annual industry event in Barcelona, Spain, where he has touted Internet.org in previous years.
     
    "Everyone in the world should have access to the Internet,'' Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook this month, arguing that online connections can improve lives and fuel economic development.
     
    To achieve that goal, Zuckerberg has high-flying dreams for someday providing Internet connections through a network of drones, satellites and lasers. But his near-term plan is simpler: Facebook works with wireless carriers in poorer nations to let people use streamlined versions of Facebook and certain other online services, without paying data charges.
     
    While the drones may someday connect people in areas too remote for cables or cell towers, Free Basics is intended for people who live in areas with Internet service but still can't afford it.
     
    A low-income resident of urban Manila, for example, can use Free Basics to view the Philippines' GMA News site. "He can be informed. He can research. He can read the news,'' Ederic Eder of GMA News said.
     
    The program varies by country, in offerings and effectiveness.
     
    In South Africa, for instance, Facebook partnered with the third-largest wireless carrier, Cell C. But Johannesburg resident Priscilla de Klerk said she couldn't get Free Basics to work on her phone.
     
    "Cell C is much cheaper as far as everything else is concerned, but their free Facebook is not a reality,'' she said.
     
    Last fall, Facebook announced a major expansion in Africa, where another regional carrier, Bharti Airtel, said it will offer Free Basics in 17 countries.
     
    "They're getting a lot of traction in Africa,'' said Danson Njue, a Kenya-based telecom analyst with the Ovum research firm. Tech rivals Google and Microsoft also have programs to expand Internet access, he noted, but their approaches are content neutral and involve extending networks to underserved areas.
     
    Facebook doesn't pay wireless companies for the cost of Free Basics. Carriers make money if new users eventually move to a paid data plan. Facebook also says it makes no money, as it doesn't show ads, though Zuckerberg has conceded it benefits from gaining users in the long run.
     
    While the company hasn't released detailed usage figures, Facebook says Free Basics has brought more than 19 million people online for the first time. That counts any user who didn't have Internet access before, regardless of whether they're currently active.
     
    On the Internet.org website, mixed in with videos about impoverished students using Free Basics to study and laborers starting small businesses, Facebook boasts more than 1 billion people "have access'' to the service. That's the combined population of regions where it's available, not the number of users.
     
    Free Basics is now in 36 countries. It was suspended last year in Egypt, on the anniversary of anti-government protests that were organized partly on Facebook. An earlier version of Free Basics, known as Facebook Zero, was shuttered three years ago in Chile, after authorities said Internet providers couldn't offer discounts for accessing some content but not others.
     
    Similar concerns turned India into the program's biggest battleground.
     
    Free Basics enrolled more than 1 million Indians in its first year, according to Facebook's wireless partner, Reliance Communications. But critics, including many in the country's growing tech community, complained it was a predatory scheme: If low-income users couldn't afford anything besides Free Basics, opponents said, that meant Facebook was deciding which online services the nation's poor could use.
     
    "The government should not allow big players to monopolize the Internet,'' said Manu Sharma, who runs a software development company in New Delhi.
     
    Facebook responded last fall by announcing it would open Free Basics to any app that met its technical requirements for systems with limited capacity. Zuckerberg also changed the program's name to Free Basics, after critics complained "Internet.org'' sounded like a nonprofit, when it's part of a for-profit company (the overall campaign is still called Internet.org).
     
    But opponents still worry that Facebook could change requirements at any time, force competitors to pay higher rates to get into the program, or even block services that run afoul of powerful politicians.
     
    "The fact that it could decide what apps could be hosted ... was a huge problem for me,'' said Basit Zaidi, a New Delhi attorney.
     
    As Indian regulators began studying the issue, Facebook drew more resentment with a public-relations blitz that critics called heavy-handed and patronizing. The regulators effectively banned Free Basics after concluding Internet providers shouldn't be allowed to charge different rates for certain services, because that discriminates against other content.
     
    U.S. regulators have endorsed the concept of "net neutrality,'' which says all websites and apps should be treated equally by Internet providers. They're now studying whether "zero rating'' programs, which offer some content for free, should be allowed. Net neutrality supporters are hoping India's decision will influence other nations.
     
    Facebook has also launched a program that helps Internet providers offer reliable Wi-Fi service in underserved areas at affordable rates and without limits on content. The program's been limited to tests in a few countries.
     
    The giant tech company could use its resources and clout with carriers to offer a similar wireless service, perhaps at limited speeds or volume, but without any restrictions on content, said Josh Levy of Access Now, a nonprofit that supports net neutrality. Zuckerberg has suggested in the past that such a service would be too expensive and difficult to offer.
     
    Some Indians, meanwhile, say their country could have benefited from Free Basics.
     
    "Ultimately, something is better than nothing, even if that something is flawed,'' said Uday Singh Tomar, a software engineer in New Delhi. "If a person is hungry and getting nothing, a free meal is good enough.''
     

    You May Like

    Video Twists and Turns Aplenty in US Presidential Race

    Even as Americans pause for this week’s Memorial Day holiday, much attention is focused on the presidential contest

    Iran Orders Social Media Sites to Store Data Inside Country

    New requirements are expected to affect the instant messaging app Telegram, which has more than 20 million users inside Iran

    The Struggle With Painkillers: Treating Pain Without Feeding Addiction

    'Wonder drug' pain medications have turned out to be major problem: not only do they run high risk of addicting the user, but they can actually make patients' chronic pain worse, US CDC says

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora