Net neutrality—the idea that all Internet traffic should generally be treated equally—suffered a setback last week when a federal court struck down the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s latest regulatory effort (see “Net Neutrality Quashed: New Pricing Schemes, Throttling, and Business Models to Follow”).
Pro-neutrality types have worried that a few giant companies will end up controlling, or at least mediating, the Internet experience for much of the population because of special deals they’ve struck with Internet providers for prioritized or subsidized data delivery.
But in the emerging economies of the world, that’s pretty much how things already work, thanks to a growing number of deals Google and Facebook have struck with mobile phone carriers from the Philippines to Kenya.
In essence, these deals give people free access to text-only version of things like Facebook news feeds, Gmail, and the first page of search results under plans like Facebook Zero or Google Free Zone. Only when users click links in e-mails or news feeds, go beyond the first page of search results, or visit websites by other means do they incur data charges (see “Facebook and Google Create Walled Gardens for Web Newcomers Overseas”).
For people who have no Internet in the first place, the idea of net neutrality is not exactly top of mind. Getting online cheaply in the first place is a greater concern, and the American companies are often enabling that to happen. Internet access is expensive in developing countries—exorbitantly so for the vast majority of people.
In Kenya the top four websites are Google, Facebook, YouTube (which is owned by Google), and the Kenyan version of Google. That pattern is fairly typical of Web usage in dozens of developing nations. And free services like Facebook Zero and Google Free Zone don’t have many critics among users, says Erik Hersman, founder of iHub, a tech-startup incubator in Nairobi. Asked if it’s seen as problematic, he says, “Not at all.”
“In the United States it’s practically free for you to get on Google and Facebook, as Wi-Fi is almost everywhere or cheap relative to income. Here, that’s not the case,” he says. “It’s a different relationship to the Internet when you only get it on your phone, and you don’t have a traditional Internet connection at home or work.”
But the existence of a free and dominant chat, e-mail, search, and social-networking service makes it awfully hard for any competitor to arise. And Susan Crawford, visiting professor of law at Harvard University and a co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, calls it “a big concern” that Google and Facebook are the ones becoming the portal to Web content for many newcomers.
“For poorer people, Internet access will equal Facebook. That’s not the Internet—that’s being fodder for someone else’s ad-targeting business,” she says. “That’s entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination—a crucial limitation on human life.”
Google struck a deal last year with the major Indian mobile network Airtel to offer Free Zone, in this case giving people up to one gigabit per month of free access to Gmail, Google+, and Google search. Some critics have called this unfair treatment that disadvantages competitors.
Derick Mains, a spokesperson for Facebook, said in an e-mail that the company did not pay for the data Facebook Zero uses, implying that carriers cover the cost in hopes that people will start using more data for a fee. Google did not reply to an interview request.
Within the United States, some concern has been expressed that the lack of net neutrality regulations could leave small players unable to compete. For example, Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist, argued that it will be hard for startups to get enough funding to challenge dominant services like YouTube if the big competitors are already paying for premium speeds online.
How things unfold in the developing world may have a bigger impact on the future of the Internet. Worldwide, the number of smartphones is projected to double from 1.5 billion last year to three billion in 2017. Most of those 1.5 billion new phones—and new Internet access—will be in the developing world.
Google and Facebook are doing more than just providing various forms of free data access. Those two companies and others, like Microsoft, are increasingly in the business of trying to expand infrastructure and related data-efficiency technologies that will, inevitably, be deployed in ways that benefit themselves (see “Facebook’s Two Faces”).
And because most of the smartphones that convey the Internet to users will be low-end Android phones, Google and Facebook are also battling to develop dominant apps for those phones (see “Facebook’s Real Home May Be the Developing World”).
Some Internet service providers in the developing world talk about trying to charge companies like Google to carry their traffic, but that is probably unlikely to happen. They recognize that free versions of popular sites like Google and Facebook draw people into greater data usage, producing revenue.
Tom Simonite contributed reporting to this story.
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.