With good intentions, and also a good dose of Facebook business strategy to expand its base of users, Mark Zuckerberg has struck out to promote Free Basics, a free limited Internet for the poor in less developed countries sponsored by Facebook and its local telecommunications partners. While on the face of it Free Basics would seem to have merit, Zuckerberg has run into a wall of opposition. On close inspection of the details, Facebook’s problem, despite all of its global corporate sophistication, appears to be naïveté about the foreign markets it is trying to enter. It is possible to argue that Zuckerberg and Facebook have the best of intentions and sound arguments. But the best of intentions and sound arguments mean nothing if the key element lacking is a clear understanding of the current foreign market, and the crucial need to adapt to it or fail. Zuckerberg could have looked no further back than 2013 for clues to why he has failed.
It appears to me that the original vision and promise of the Internet, referred to by many as Digital Utopianism, is at severe risk of deteriorating into a “balkanized” World Wide Web.
National and political Internet barriers, censorship and ubiquitous surveillance seem to be the emerging new reality. Notable digital luminaries the likes of Vin Cerf and Bill Gates have been questioned on this point, and both have expressed no major concern about deterioration of the freedom of the Internet or with the original Utopian vision. The argument is that the World Wide Web cannot be effectively blocked or censored. As a long time Silicon Valley high tech executive, I understand this optimistic view, but the facts on the ground are now providing serious evidence that the Internet is under attack, and may not survive unless there is a significant shift in these new trends.
Yesterday, the United Stated Federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. issued a ruling that was essentially a “technical” setback for the notion that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, better known as Net Neutrality. The ruling now permits giant corporations like Verizon, NBC/Comcast, and Time Warner to charge higher fees to content providers like Netflix, Amazon and even potentially, Google. If that sounds bad for consumers, you are right. This decision was essentially caused by an earlier decision of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to maintain a free and open “hands off” policy, and not regulate Internet traffic, considered evil by Internet purists. But the effect of this Court ruling may be greater evil, leading to the conclusion that “common carrier” regulation may be the lesser of two evils.
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