Facebook is creating a parallel internet in emerging markets

July 31, 2014
July 31, 2014

In September 2012, Quartz published a prescient piece titled “Facebook’s plan to find its next billion users: convince them the internet and Facebook are the same.” The article argued that Facebook Zero, a way to access the social network without paying for data, would give Facebook “the chance to become the world’s homepage.”

Today, Facebook is making good on that idea. The company’s non-profit arm promoting internet adoption in poorer parts of the world announced today that a new app (imaginatively called the internet.org app) that will give free access to a host of online services, including Facebook, Google search, and Wikipedia, as well as “useful health, employment and local information services.”

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For now, the service is available only to users of the Airtel mobile network in Zambia—that’s some 3.5 million people. It is not exactly a plan to take over the world. More likely, it is a pilot program to test what this means for Facebook and for the carrier. This will not work everywhere. Chile, for instance, has outlawed zero-rated services on the basis that they violate net neutrality. There are legitimate worries that such services can undermine privacy and threaten free speech.

Yet in the past couple of years, Facebook has been remarkably successful in bringing its service, via Facebook Zero, to large swaths of the world. Emerging markets already make up six of the top seven countries on the social network, and it is only a matter of time before one of them—India—replaces the US as the country with the most users on the network.

The company’s free data plan has been widely copied; all the big web firms now offer a similar product. Indeed, free Facebook access is a a regular feature of new, cheap smartphones, whether they come from ailing (or dead) giants or indigenous makers. All of which was great for Facebook (if less so for mobile operators), but didn’t yet come close to convincing people that the internet and Facebook are the same.

Facebook’s latest move is a clear signal of the company’s intentions: The social network has long since ceased to see itself as only a social network. Instead, Facebook wants to become the next AOL or Google, sitting between users and the rest of the web. And just because it’s beginning that quest in poor countries doesn’t mean its efforts won’t move beyond there. Yesterday, the US carrier Sprint announced that it would offer Facebook-only data packages for $12 a month on its Virgin Mobile service. That is a practice that started on the other side of the world.

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