Why it matters: Facebook “news suppression” and Internet.org
Facebook is positioning itself as a potential global agenda-setting gatekeeper. So why do they insist they support a free Internet?
You may have heard recently about news reports alleging that Facebook is “suppressing conservative news from its ‘trending’ news section”. While the evidence provided for this claim is far from conclusive, and Facebook has firmly denied this story, there were also important facts that surfaced as a result.
The ‘Trending Topics’ news sections of Facebook, while previously believed to be purely generated by Facebook algorithms, require the input of a “review team” before generating a list of news topics. Even though Facebook maintains that the review team functions mostly in a maintenance capacity, it’s worth noting that technically the review team would have editorial discretion over information, whether that’s against company policy or not. Setting aside the many problems of unconscious bias, editorial discretion over information on a platform such as Facebook could lead to agenda-setting gatekeepers, whose powers raise important questions about what we want our global Internet to look like.
To address these questions, we must frame these issues in a global perspective. Consider that approximately 60% of the world’s population still lacks any connection to the Internet, the majority of whom live in developing countries, remote areas, and rural communities. Facebook’s global project Internet.org, or “Free Basics”, claims to address this situation by providing ‘free’ access to a highly limited version of the Internet to developing communities throughout the world.
Introducing vast swaths of developing countries, remote areas, and rural communities to the Internet will have profound consequences for their economies, their education, and their governments. The billions of people who would be logging onto the Internet for the very first time could prove vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation. We know that globally, digital education has lagged behind, and educational institutions have not done an adequate job of providing critical thinking tools for our digital lives. For example, how often and recently do you recall when a colleague, friend, or family member shared an article from The Onion as if it was factual information, or decided to change their daily routine based on information from a dubiously sourced article? We take it for granted, but we’ve learned how to avoid the bad things on the Internet by operating through years of trial-and-error, and we continue to do so daily. A newly connected person to the Internet will be starting from scratch, in some cases without additional advantages of higher or even basic education.
That’s why it’s imperative that the newly connected users benefit from the full open Internet that adheres to Net Neutrality, so that they can have the same learning opportunities about how to use the Internet as we all do. Unfortunately, Facebook’s approach has been the complete opposite. Internet.org is a closed platform, providing free access to a Facebook-curtailed information hub, which would essentially empower, designate, and maintain Facebook as the gatekeepers to information in these newly connected areas. Facebook would not provide the real Internet to these new users, but only access to certain apps and platforms that it deems fit. Our own Josh Tabish has already had a look at agenda-setting gatekeepers and the problems they pose for the open Internet, but let’s look more specifically at what effects Internet.org could have on the three pillars of the open web.
While the initial influx of the new apps and platforms will give access to billions, in the longer term, establishing Facebook as the dominant provider of services could limit the access of these new users, as they will be left without access to the real Internet, and no competing services challenging Facebook to provide access to these populations. This could have huge long term ramifications for the economic, political, and social development of these populations, as millions of people would be unable to distinguish between the real Internet and Facebook’s strictly limited alternative. Additionally, Facebook could choose to only promote their partner platforms, limiting the choices for consumers.
Facebook as the gatekeepers of apps and platforms means they would be able to discriminate against or restrict access to local service providers, especially those that would provide local, tailored solutions for developing economies. This would severely limit and affect innovation within developing industries. Users will also have to adhere by the terms, rules, and conditions of these select platforms, and therefore be limited not only in their choices, but in the ways they choose to express themselves online.
Speaking of terms and conditions, users in developing countries may be more vulnerable to privacy breaches, as the countries they are from may suffer from a deficit in human rights and/or lack of transparency, while also suffering from the same lack of robust privacy protections as people in industrialized nations. This would mean that not only would these platforms open the door for new ways governments could abuse the privacy rights of their citizens, but the platform partners themselves could misuse the data they collect from these users. Also, concentration of private user data within a single platform and with no competition could raise additional privacy concerns, such as providing a single target for repressive regimes seeking to know everything about their citizens.
These are only a few examples of how promoting a fake Internet would be detrimental to the entire Internet community. As our Josh Tabish wrote: “When you insert a government or business gatekeeper, you subvert all of the empowerment that stems from this amazing, global tool.”
Mark Zuckerberg has continuously insisted that Facebook must remain an open platform, yet seems to not mind offering closed platforms to those in developing countries and remote communities. These platforms would create big issues of access, free expression, and privacy for the users in countries that would utilize them. That’s why we’re seeing more and more global citizens standing up and fighting back against these ill-conceived platforms. Our own Steve Anderson wrote about what we can learn from India’s successful Internet freedom movement.
Keeping the Internet open and free for everyone will create a thriving, global digital community that will benefit us all. That’s why we all need to stay alert about the dangers posed by potential gatekeepers, and expand our fight to include everyone struggling across the globe. Join the fight today!