The internet and related technologies are key tools for economic and human development. They enable people to work more efficiently, learn, seek employment, get health care from a distance thanks to telemedicine… From the two thirds of the world’s population that do not benefit from them, the demand for universal access to the internet is stronger than ever. Facebook and Google are trying to meet this need. But the strategies they employ could call the principle of net neutrality into question.
Aquila, Free Basics, Loon: towards the end of the digital divide?
In February 2017, the X laboratory, owned by Google via its mothership Alphabet, presented the latest developments of its mysterious “Loon” project. Revealed in 2013, this project intends to bring the internet to the most isolated rural populations, thanks to high-altitude relay balloons propelled by the wind. The first tests were carried out in New Zealand in 2013. Since then, the laboratory has announced the signing of partnerships with Australia, Brazil, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Facebook is not outdone. The internet.org initiative, launched by the social network in 2013, aims at “connecting the world” thanks to several tools. Facebook is notably developing a class of solar drones that are supposed to deliver internet access to remote areas. Called “Aquila”, these devices are still at the experimental stage.
The Californian company is also developing the Free Basics mobile app, for the poorest to access a selection of basic websites for free: a selection that includes Facebook, but not Google. To expand its service offering, Facebook forges partnerships with local mobile operators, country by country. Operators provide bandwidth, betting on the expectation that this limited access will make people want to upgrade and pay for full internet access. Free Basics is already available in about fifty countries throughout Africa, the Middle-East, Latin America and Asia.
A development revolution or a huge marketing plan?
But Facebook and Google’s ambitions have aroused many misgivings. One can indeed wonder about the implications of such privatization of the Web, which would allow the Silicon Valley giants, who provide internet access, service and content at the same time, to take unprecedented control over the information exchanged online.
In late 2015 for instance, India rejected Facebook’s proposal to help it expand its internet network with Free Basics. Concerned about the advent of a supposedly universal access to the internet that would actually be restricted and controlled by the social network, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India deemed the project inadmissible and underlined the necessity to protect net neutrality, so that web users do not get to see the world only through the prism of a single company’s commercial interests. However, the Indian precedent has not prevented Facebook from launching Free Basics in other countries, including in Nigeria in May 2016.
On the other hand, the aerial solutions developed by Google and Facebook are still far from finalized: low autonomy, imprecise navigation control… At its February 2017 press briefing, Google’s X laboratory refused to specify when its stratospheric balloons would be tested by real users. As for Facebook, it took them several months to admit that Aquila had crashed during its first flight test, in June 2015. The company had initially described this first flight as a success in the international media.
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