With weekly notifications about how Facebook has failed to protect consumers due to its pursuit of profits, the focus on regulating Facebook has centered around debates of privacy, election security, democracy, and data collection in the West. But under the pretense of connecting more people to the Internet, Facebook has rapidly taken up partnerships across the Global South with local telecommunications companies to provide Internet services at reduced costs. These initiatives have admittedly lead to foreign election meddling, the spread of false information and propaganda, riots and mob violence from hate speech, and genocide. Each major tech company’s foray into pursuing the social good of providing more Internet access differs, yet a brighter future exists only with an understanding how Facebook operates. Although Facebook has shown an apparent pattern of being a reactive company, reacting poorly to Cambridge Analytica, shutdowns of its product, and its competitors, policymakers should understand that Facebook has been responsive to regulations, particularly when they aren’t coming from the executive suite. In other words, Facebook has shown not only its willingness to comply to regulation but a historical responsiveness to such regulation in other countries; understanding this reactive nature may be a the best tool policymakers can use.
Facebook has continually pushed itself into communities large and small, claiming to “bring the world closer together” through its services. A series of different applications have emerged over the last five years to provide people internet services seemingly for free. The first service available, Free Basics, originated in 2013 through contracts between national telecom companies and Facebook and other global tech giants, like Samsung and Qualcomm. The local telecom companies would offer limited usage of Facebook and a few other American “services” for free exclusively; for example, users would have to pay if they wanted to access external links from Facebook. This limited people’s ability to receive an accurate rendering of the news, since they could not view the sources behind repeatedly-shared articles, leaving them to make judgments from titles of articles they did not read, with potentially questionable information.
While collecting massive amounts of user data, protests against Free Basics rose against Facebook for not providing the services that people actually wanted. After accusations of violations of net neutrality, Free Basics was banned from India and Chile and was eventually quietly pulled from dozens of other countries. Free Basics started failing as a venture because it became too infiltrated and was too complicated a system for governments and citizens to accept. After the blow from India’s Telecom regulatory agency, Facebook’s only reaction left was going back to the drawing board to reach its next billion users.
In 2017, Express Wifi has replaced the previous technologies as continuations of Facebook’s goal to reach more users and provide internet connectivity more widely. Express Wi-Fi allows local vendors to create Internet hotspots with Facebook’s technology and provides access to potential users through an app. The accusations now have transitioned from violations of net neutrality to accusations of unwarranted data collection. Within months of Express Wi-Fi’s launch, Facebook was siphoning data that only the local Internet Service Provider (ISP) was supposed to have access to.
In response to their previous failings and criticism, Facebook realized that it needed a lightweight alternative that did not feel so invasive, required less logistical legwork and lobbying, and most importantly could be masked well enough to make direct regulation challenging. Facebook Lite and Facebook Lite Messenger are apps just like any other when downloaded; no negotiated, complicated relationships with telecommunications services involved. This app is stripped down to its core components: newsfeed, messaging, personal profile, and notifications. Where Facebook’s Free Basics received countless accusations of “digital colonization” for hoarding and attempting to control the distribution of digital resources, Facebook Lite has received little of this criticism because it operates as any social media app would, except at a slower pace and on reduced networks to accommodate older phones and weaker connections. Regulating Facebook Lite isn’t even part of the Facebook regulation conversation, because Facebook Lite has been ingeniously built to be detached and unregulatable as its predecessors were. But policymakers don’t have to give in; new bans and regulations that force Facebook to react have created fairer products for users since Facebook Lite was not the company’s first iteration at expanding its platform to low internet penetration areas.
Although the new services are more lawful and do not operate entirely on a free model, they are still dominating emerging global markets and becoming major modes of connectivity where local sites might have emerged, providing services that fit their citizens better than an international giant. Perhaps every country or region could have developed a social networking platform as seen in China had Facebook not dominated. Facebook Lite and Express Wifi seem like they will have the longevity that Free Basics did not, but that does not mean their penetration should be overlooked in the debates on regulation.
Facebook anticipates the inevitable spread of the internet, internet services, and social media to the developing world, as well as the migration of business and advertising to the internet as people join and use online platforms. Most importantly for Facebook, its early entry into the markets will have large potential payoffs in the coming decades. As Facebook continues to grow into a behemoth of an organization, the earlier and sooner regulations are tested, the sooner users can be protected. Although the American government has so far failed to reign in companies like Facebook, protests and bans have been effective in low and middle-income countries because Facebook reacts by changing its services. Facebook has already undergone a slew of changes about private information developers have access to, but likely would not have if it had not faced government and user pressure. Although more decisive global action requires collective support and well-iterated goals, Facebook has shown itself subject to blocks without much fight.
Development economists and many citizens alike see the expansion of the internet to broader audiences as a positive social good. As the debates rage on about regulation, Facebook is quietly laying roots deeper and deeper all around the world. While the emergence and penetration of Facebook Lite and Messenger Lite should prompt concern, it should also inform discussions of regulating Facebook particularly in shedding insight on Facebook’s existing history and response to government pressures in numerous countries.