Free Basics is Facebook’s internet access product for emerging markets, offering users a limited selection of pre-approved apps for free. Facebook’s developer documentation says:

By introducing people to the benefits of the internet through these services, we hope to bring more people online and help improve their lives.

Net Neutrality supporters question their motives, describing Free Basics as a predatory, anti-competitive customer acquisition strategy masquerading as philanthropy. I think they’re right to be suspicious, but most of the debate rings hollow to me because activists don’t offer a credible alternative. Even if you concede that Free Basics is bad for the Internet, Facebook comes to the table with a fully managed access package that has immediate benefits for governments, carriers and the poorest users in emerging markets. This is easy and compelling, so opponents of Free Basics are unlikely to get traction unless they can point to a similarly attractive option that’s also compatible with Net Neutrality.

Seamless for users

It’s hard to overstate how good the Free Basics user experience is for everyone who doesn’t spend their time thinking about internet freedom. When I open Facebook on my phone while connected to Tigo Tanzania, a banner at the top of the screen informs me that I have 100MB free per day. That’s it. I’m using Free Basics.

For a typical internet user in emerging markets this is huge. They can communicate with friends and family, read news and access entertainment, all via an app they’d probably want to use anyway, without doing or paying anything. It just works. Good luck convincing this person they should pay for a data bundle, travel to use a public hotspot, or use a slower government-subsidized connection because of the value of a free and open internet.

Profitable for providers

Facebook doesn’t publish details of their deals with Internet providers but Free Basics appears to be a good deal for them too. When I click through to a site that’s not part of Free Basics, up pops an offer to buy data bundles:

Facebook lets carriers offer one-click purchasing to end users. 'Shilingi 250' is about 24 US cents.
Facebook lets carriers offer one-click purchasing to end users. 'Shilingi 250' is about 24 US cents.

If I have a prepaid balance they’ll debit my account with one click and off I go, an easy upsell for me and for Tigo. Users can also access a “pack market” through Facebook’s official Android app to browse other available bundles. Tigo’s own USSD menus for buying these bundles require multiple steps and can take minutes to navigate. Facebook lets carriers offer a better experience and sell more data bundles, and likely takes on most of the engineering work, all via an app most users already have.

Easy for government

Government relations are the aspect of this I know least about, but even with charitable assumptions about motives on all sides it’s easy to see why Facebook’s offer gets attention. Public servants in emerging markets are often stretched thin, focused on foundational aspects of economic development and public services. Many are not educated about net neutrality. Facebook shows up willing to do the leg work around business development, technical implementation and content curation. They offer a neatly packaged solution to technology, policy and business issues that are difficult even for the world’s richest countries. All the government has to do is say yes.

We need an alternative

You’d be morally and logically right to cry “fallacy of relative privation!” The value of a free and open Internet shouldn’t be minimized even though poor people and governments have more immediate problems. In the time we’d take to have a nuanced discussion about the value of internet freedom in emerging markets, many Free Basics users would send a few Facebook messages and get on with thinking about their work, family and health. No-cost internet access meets a real need for poor people. Any argument that they shouldn’t have it has to point to alternatives that could compete with Facebook’s solution.