The security guru Bruce Schneier once famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Like all striking generalisations it was slightly too general: it was strictly true only if by “the internet” you meant the services of a certain number of giant tech companies, notably those of Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (including YouTube), Twitter and Amazon.
The trouble is (and this is what gave Schneier’s aphorism its force) that for a large chunk of networked humanity, especially inhabitants of poorer countries, these walled gardens are indeed what people regard as “the internet”. And that’s no accident. Although Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap everywhere, mobile data tends to be prohibitively expensive in poor countries. So the deal offered by western tech companies is that data charges are low or zero if you access the internet via their apps, but expensive if you venture outside their walled gardens.
Of all the companies, Facebook was the one that first appreciated the potential of this strategy. It offered a way of signing up a billion new users in hitherto underserved parts of the world, thereby reducing the digital divide between the global north and the south. This meant that it could be spun as a philanthropic initiative, initially badged as internet.org and then as Free Basics. The app gave users access to a small selection of websites and services that were stripped of photos and videos and could thus be browsed without paying for mobile data. The rationale was that Free Basics would provide a taster of the internet, which would let people see the value of being connected. Conveniently, though, it also made Facebook the gateway to the internet for these new users. It was the default setting, as it were, in an online world where most people never change defaults and so functioned as a gateway drug for online addiction.
Rather to Facebook’s surprise, Free Basics was not universally welcomed in some of its target territories. The most vocal opposition came in India, the most important market outside of the west, where ungrateful critics perceived it an example of “digital colonialism” and it was eventually blocked by the country’s telecoms regulator on the grounds that it violated the principle of net neutrality by explicitly favouring some kinds of online content while effectively blocking others. Beyond India, however, Free Basics seems to be thriving, being used by “up to 100 million” people in 65 countries, including 28 in Africa.
Last May, Facebook launched a kind of Free Basics 2.0 called Discover. It’s a mobile app that can be used to browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile network partners. Effectively, it strips out all website content that’s data-intensive (images, video, audio) and displays a pared-down version of the site. “We’re exploring ways to help people stay on the internet more consistently,” explains the Facebook blurb. “Many internet users around the world remain under-connected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance. Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again.”
Sounds good, eh? But a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, on how Discover works in the Philippines (where it has replaced Free Basics) found that not all websites seemed to be stripped for onward viewing. When accessing Facebook through Discover, for example, it wasn’t stripped much – just 4% of images were removed from Instagram, compared with more than 65% of images on other popular sites such as YouTube and e-commerce platform Shopee. The inference was that Discover rendered Facebook’s own services far more functional than those of its competitors. Charged with this, the company blamed a “technical error” that had since been resolved.
Maybe it has, but it might not be wise to trust what Facebook has to say on questions such as this. It’s not that long ago, for example, that it offered its users Onavo Protect, a free virtual private network (VPN) app that would protect their privacy. The company is now being sued by Australia’s competition and consumer commission (ACCC) for using Onavo to allegedly spy on users. “Through Onavo Protect,” said the regulator, “Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app.” Facebook responded that it was “always clear about the information we collect and how it is used”, that it had cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation and that it “will continue to defend” its position in response to the regulator’s filing.
You get the point? Maybe surveillance isn’t the only business model of the internet. Hypocrisy runs it a close second.
What I’ve been reading
Masters and servants
Between Golem and God: The Future of AI is a beautifully structured essay on the 3 Quarks Daily website.
Dressed for all weathers
How clothing and climate change kickstarted agriculture is the thesis of an intriguing Aeon essay by Ian Gilligan, a prehistorian at the University of Sydney.
On the mend
Monopolists Are Winning the Repair Wars is a terrific blog post by Cory Doctorow on the importance of the “right to repair” our own equipment.