Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Zero-Rating Policies for Facebook Left Many in the South Pacific Without the News

It appears that Facebook and the Australian government are resolving their differences. Facebook says that it will be restoring links to news on its platform; the government will make some adjustments to the law.

But while a country and a social media company were scuffling, the latter’s power became obvious to those in the South Pacific.

Sheldon Chanel, the Guardian:

Dr Amanda Watson, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and an expert in digital technology use in the Pacific, said there was widespread confusion across the Pacific about the practical ramifications of Facebook’s Australian news ban.

[…]

“Facebook is the primary platform, because a number of telco providers offer cheaper Facebook data, or bonus Facebook data. Many Pacific Islanders might know how to do some basic Facebooking, but it’s questionable if they would be able to open an internet search engine and search for news, or go to a particular web address. There are technical confidence issues, and that’s linked to education levels in the Pacific, and how long people have had access to the internet.”

Watson is describing the practice of zero-rating and one reason why it is so pernicious. Zero-rating sounds great on its face. It means that popular services can strike deals with telecom providers so, at its best, some of the things most people do on the web are not counted against data quotas.

In the case of Facebook Free Basics — formerly Internet.org, which is among the most specious branding exercises I can imagine — there are a handful of websites and services that are included in mobile plans. Many of the websites selected by Facebook to receive this special treatment are American, including Facebook itself, of course. The result of this is that, according to a 2015 survey, only 5% of Americans agreed with the statement that “Facebook is the internet” compared to 65% of respondents in Nigeria, 61% in Indonesia, and 58% in India — countries where Facebook Free Basics is available.

In the quote above, Watson describes a lack of technical ability for not accessing many websites outside of Facebook, but there is another major hurdle: cost. Data plans can be expensive, and many news websites are garbage. Sticking to the websites included in Facebook Free Basics is not just easier, it is an economic reality that Facebook is taking advantage of.

In much of the world, internet policy effectively is Facebook policy, and vice-versa. One reason for that is the ferocious speed at which Facebook grew and acquired potential competitors. Though an American company, WhatsApp was wildly popular mostly outside of the U.S. before Facebook bought it. That’s why treating antitrust as a solely American concern — or something of trivial relevance, or something that can be eradicated with the eventual passage of time — is such a frustrating response from those of us who live elsewhere.

So, yes, Australian policy requiring Facebook to pay Rupert Murdoch’s empire so that users of the former can link to the latter does seem pretty ridiculous. But it is extraordinary to see a huge chunk of the world’s ad spending redirected to two American companies headquartered within a ten minute drive of each other. Many independent and local media entities around the world are bleeding so that Murdoch can buy another yacht with the money Facebook and Google should be using to pay their taxes.

Update: A reluctance to effectively govern in the United States is not the only way to gain technical dominance.