The progress (and potential regress) of Facebook's internet.org initiative is an important and highly relevant issue to take note of on several fronts. For those unaware, the aim of internet.org is to connect the world, via the internet.
From the internet.org website:
"The internet is essential to growing the knowledge we have and sharing it with each other. And for many of us, it's a huge part of our everyday lives. But most of the world does not have access to the internet. Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative with the goal of bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn't have them."
That 'two-thirds' is particularly relevant for Facebook - currently Facebook has over 1.55 billion active users (a billion of whom log-on to the platform every single day). The current population of the world is estimated to be 7.4 billion, which means that around one in every five people are active users of Facebook. But, of course, that total population count also takes in several large groups of people that can't actually access Facebook, most notably the 1.4 billion people who live in China, where Facebook access is blocked by local authorities. Facebook's also banned or restricted in several other nations, including North Korea, Vietnam and Iran - if you take into account the combined total populations of these nations, (1.55 billion, including China), then the number of people in the world that could possibly use Facebook is more like 5.6 billion. You can reduce that even further by discounting people aged 13 and under (the threshold at which people are permitted to sign up for a Facebook account), which is conservatively estimated to be around 20% of the global population (1.17 billion). Once you've removed these variables from the population count, it's actually more like one in every three people who could possibly use Facebook do so, which is a far more compelling stat, and far more indicative of the global influence Zuckerberg's social behemoth holds.
Given that equation, Facebook could improve their audience share significantly if it were able to reach people in areas where Facebook isn't banned, but simply isn't available due to other factors like poor connectivity and affordability of access. If Facebook's already being used by about 1/3 of people who're able to do so, and 2/3 of the world don't have access to the internet (as per internet.org's mission statement), you can see how Facebook might use this as a vehicle to further their wider aim of total internet domination. Given Facebook's global adoption rates, connecting these new audiences would deliver huge benefits for the platform.
From this perspective, it makes sense to see Facebook currently concentrating the powers of internet.org on India - based on the nation's total population (1.3b) and internet penetration in the country (estimated to be around 18%), India has potential non internet-connected audience of over 1.06 billion, which is well above the potential audience available in any other region of the world where internet.org currently operates (Indonesia's the next closest, with a potential non-connected audience of 210.4 million). If Facebook were able to get even a portion of those people connected to 'Free Basics' - a set of web-powered information tools made available free of charge via internet.org, and exempt of data charges via collaboration with local mobile operators - that'd be a huge audience to add to The Social Network's global reach, a massive new chunk of people to connect with (and advertise to).
The motivation of the program, from this standpoint, seems relatively clear, and this is where the real complexity of internet.org lies.
Is this just a tool to get more people onto Facebook, or is it really, as advertised, part of a more altruistic goal to 'connect the world' and give more people access to more information - and thus, improve the world as we know it?
This is the core of the argument against internet.org and Free Basics in India - that Facebook, a company with a vested interest in the provision of internet access and capability, should not be left in charge of selecting which providers can take part and what content can be made available via the program. Facebook's long held that Free Basics is non-discriminatory and open to all developers (there are currently more than 60 services available via Free Basics, including, of course, Facebook), but the fact of the matter is that Facebook ultimately decides what services and providers qualify for Free Basics access, a position which could give them significant market control and the ability to keep competitors out of the loop.
What's more, reports have suggested that some people already have trouble differentiating between Facebook and the internet itself, which boosts the significance of Facebook as a platform to those who are unfamiliar with how the connected world works. This, too, could lead to Facebook gaining significant market advantage via internet.org. And really, this is a point that can't be disputed - the wider implementation of internet.org will, inevitably, give Facebook more reach and more market power. But at the same time, it'll also provide internet access to millions - potentially billions - of people who otherwise would have no connection at all.
Is it better to have access to more information, even if it is controlled by a corporate entity, or to remain disconnected, in the relative stone age when it comes to resources and the educational possibilities that the internet's able to provide?
It's a question to which there's no real answer, as the impact will be different, dependent on each region and the individual users within it.
And then the next concern, of course, is around what Facebook might do with such market power once it has it, which can only be accurately judged in retrospect.
One element that you could say suggests Facebook's interests are, at least in some part, commercially motivated, is the focus on India itself, where Facebook has been pushing hard to gain support and force the Indian Government to allow Indian citizens continued access their Free Basics program - even taking out full-page newspaper ads and publishing their own commissioned polls to force the issue (Facebook says 86% of Indians are in support of Free Basics, though some dispute the accuracy of those numbers).
If Facebook's motivation is purely focused on connecting more of the world, there's plenty of other regions where internet.org is currently working which they could focus on instead, but India does seem to be their key target. As noted, that's undoubtedly because it has, by far, the biggest potential audience for the program, but Facebook could, in the face of stiff opposition, shift their efforts to other regions of the world with a view to building the platform and developing greater advocacy for the initiative by demonstrating the program's unbiased nature and benefits in places where it is allowed to operate. That would eventually put more pressure on India to allow Free Basics to roll out more freely (worth noting, Free Basics has been made available in India previously, but was shut down due to protests about net neutrality on December 23rd).
Whether it's due to concerns about losing momentum and support (Egypt shut down Free Basics a week after India did) or whether it's a push to gain the most users as quickly as possible is hard to say, but there does seem to be some element of building audience at play in Facebook's aggressive internet.org promotion efforts in India.
Growth and Relevance
Facebook is, by far, the biggest social media platform on the planet, with a global audience that's almost double that of it's nearest rival (and larger when compared to other pure social networks, as opposed to messaging platforms). But like all great corporations, Facebook knows that you only remain the biggest by working at it - you keep other players out through dominance, by evolving your features and shifting market focus to ensure you're using your size and capacity to expand and beat out competitors before they can take hold. In Twitter's most recent earnings report, for example, the biggest concern was stalled user growth, particularly in the US. Lack of growth reduces future business prospects - if your audience isn't expanding, you're not such a great bet for investors as it's quite possible that you've reached peak penetration. That, logically, lowers market sentiment and sparks sell-offs - Twitter this week has been trading at its lowest level since its initial listing back in 2013. Continued growth is the greatest barometer of business health, and for social media platforms, user growth is that measuring stick. Revenue growth, too, is critical, but ongoing revenue growth is largely linked to user expansion and the capacity to build upon the ad revenues and opportunities that exist.
Facebook knows this, and they've done a great job at continuing to expand their platform - in their most recent earnings results, at a stage where most would expect Facebook to be reaching saturation point, The Social Network still managed to add an additional 4.02% in monthly active users (MAUs). Internet.org can obviously play a big part in this, expanding Facebook into new markets and new regions where they can continue to grow and build upon that huge audience. But more than that, more users in more regions also means more data, a key aspect in Facebook's future planning - eventually, with all that personal and behavioral data they have on every user, everywhere, Facebook will become the key source of information and insights, an essential tool to be used for market research and ad targeting. In a future where robots and AI will be built to better understand who we are and what we want, that data will become increasingly valuable - and no one has more of this type of insight than Facebook.
And as Facebook grows, so too does their capacity for market dominance - an expanded Facebook empire will increasingly be able to stifle competition, either by buying them out (as they did with Instagram, and as they tried to do with Snapchat), or by appropriating their features and adding them into the Facebook experience (if people can get the same functionality on the platforms where they already have established networks, there's no reason for them to leave). Facebook can also use its market size as a key - if not the key - marketing chip. This is how they're pitching Instant Articles - unmatched reach and an improved reader experience. This is how they're working to out-manoeuvre YouTube for video supremacy, how they're likely to win in live-streaming. Facebook's size is a major advantage, and the bigger it gets, the more it'll continue to grow as a result.
And another wrinkle in their strategy - Facebook's also looking to develop it's on-platform selling and market capacity. What if Facebook could become the key connector of the global marketplace and provide greater trade opportunities to all regions? No other platform is even close to where Facebook is on this front, and the expansion of internet.org builds upon this capacity, amplifying the value of The Social Network in another area which they can build upon.
Even if you don't think the intention of internet.org is focused on commercial gain for Facebook, it's a pretty great side effect.
Truly, the opportunities of this initiative are great - from Facebook's perspective, clearly, but from a wider market view, there's also a heap to be gained from the internet.org program. While concerns around net neutrality will be a constant throughout its expansion, the program will continue to roll on, and it'll be interesting to see the debate shift and evolve over time and see what it becomes.
But internet.org is important, it's important for everyone to be aware of and understand what it means for Facebook, for the internet, and for our connected world more widely.
Its implications could eventually change everything.