Facebook Basics - Good Service, Bad Positioning!

I am adding my voice (belatedly) to the heated arguments that are being made, both for and against, Facebook's 'Free Basics' offerings via internet.org. I waited before weighing in,so that I did not react from my own initial biases, and also because this gave me a chance to understand more about internet.org and what Facebook is really trying to do.
So here is my stance - I believe that Free Basics is a good service for EVERYONE (not just poor people, or people without internet access). It may or may not motivate people to graduate to paid internet access. It can definitely help Facebook to reach out to its future user base. It's not a bad or evil service.

What I am against is the positioning that Facebook has taken with Free Basics. The strange campaign that "the freedom of the internet is under threat", which is being thrust under our noses and news feeds all the time. We are led to believe that banning Free Basics is akin to an attack on the poor, their rights, to posing obstacles to the larger cause of a free internet. Zuckerberg's fierce opinion piece in the Times of India claims, "Choose facts over false claims. Everyone deserves access to the internet. Free basic internet services can help achieve this. Free Basics should stay to help achieve digital equality for India."

What got me curious, was the vehemence of Facebook's response to the TRAI review and public feedback on its campaign (much of this feedback comes from Facebook's own customer base in India). Why is Facebook fighting so violently, and spending so much money, to position itself as the champion of the poor? Especially - why are they spending good money on full page ads and PR? Spending hard cash is a serious business decision - an investment to either grow, or protect, market share and image. 

Here's the thing - I think that Mark Zuckerberg REALLY believes in Free Basics. No, he is not faking his anger and hurt. It was truly intended as a grand Social Responsibility gesture on the part of Facebook, to reach out internet services to deprived masses. And as I said, that's not a bad thing. Where Facebook  went wrong, was in positioning their offering. They have elevated it to the scale of Service to Humanity and in my view, they are taking themselves way too seriously, way too early. The benchmarks for Service to Humanity are high, and Facebook has yet to match up to them.

Let's start off with Internet.org, Facebook's initiative to bring internet to the unconnected world. (I am sure they spent a fortune to buy this domain, and the connotations that it represents). If Facebook's aim was to equate Free Basics with the Internet, then this was a big mistake. Internet is a loosely used term today, but what it actually means, is the infrastructure backbone of the world wide web - the network of computers and servers around the world, with the ability to transfer packets of information between each other. The core principle of the internet is free and open peer to peer communication, which means that anyone can connect with anyone else on the internet. An extremely misleading domain name for Facebook to adopt, if their goal was to offer a limited, curated set of sites. They should have adopted the term internet.org, only if their intention was to offer access to the entire, unabridged, open internet. Otherwise, they were laying themselves wide open for criticism.

Secondly, let's talk about the term 'free' which has a very different meaning in the online world, than it does in the offline world.  Free is not just about paid vs. unpaid access. The creators of the Internet and World Wide Web have made all the underlying codes and information architectures, open source, royalty free and freely accessible to everyone, which is why the internet has experienced the explosive growth that it has. Yes, free = free transfer of intellectual property, giving up of profit-earning and sharing of all underlying source codes. 

That's the benchmark for 'Free'. Maybe it's unfair to compare Zuckerberg to the founders of the Internet but then - internet.org was his idea! And as I said, this is nothing but bad positioning of an offering that intends good - just that hubris has elevated the goodness of the offering to levels that it cannot actually achieve. 

Now, to come to the last part - Facebook has called this initiative Free Basics. Why not Facebook Basics? Why are they shy about keeping their name out of all the good work that they are doing? Google does lots of projects to bring internet to the masses - all Google branded (Ok, now they are Alphabet branded). There is a reason for this question. Facebook seems to control Free Basics silently, from the background. There is no group or foundation including neutral third parties, that represents Free Basics, or mediates with the public. It appears as though Facebook is hiding behind names, trying to play down their role in these ventures when actually they are the sole owners and drivers! There is a lack of honesty and transparency in this stance that I find disturbing.

Had Facebook called their initiative ''Free Basics by Facebook" or "Facebook Basics", and positioned it as a promotional marketing service, probably no one would have had objections. Isn't that closer to the truth of the offering - that it's a Facebook owned initiative to get more people to try Facebook and a bunch of other sites. Their failed attempt to position this service as occupying a higher moral ground has led to the backlash against them. It's perhaps unfair, that people are ignoring the aspect of social good that the service was intended to achieve. But spending money shouting about it, is not going to help achieve it. A positioning cannot be hammered into people's minds through ad claims. If people don't see it the way you do, they don't see it. Better to move on, and adopt a more realistic positioning.

Commercialism and Capitalism are not dirty words in the modern era. In fact, commercial businesses have a huge potential to do good to the communities they live in. Capitalism raises the standard of living in countries, more than socialism has ever succeeded in doing. One of the admirable things about commercial and capital ventures is the clean commitment to build great products that ensure business growth. There is very little hypocrisy in such commitments. I would advise Zuckerberg and Facebook to take a long, hard, objective look at themselves. Separate the emotion and hubris from the hard cold facts and acknowledge that their misguided positioning of Facebook Basics might be hurting their brand image. 

Humility, owning up to mistakes and backing off from wrong positions are all the hallmarks of great business leaders and I look forward to seeing Mr. Zuckerberg display these traits!


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