A July 7 press release that followed Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar’s meeting with Facebook's Vice President for Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan had attempted to paint a rosy picture for Pakistan's digital future.
Facebook, according to the release (authored by the interior ministry), had agreed to greater cooperation on the interior minister's initiatives against online blasphemy.
For the interior ministry, the meeting with Kaplan was important because it gave the interior minister a chance to negotiate greater control over what gets shared online.
However, with the meeting touted as a successful milestone in the interior ministry's clampdown on blasphemous content on social media, what got glossed over was what Facebook seemed to be asking for in return.
Facebook’s Free Basics project
The social media giant may have conceded some ground to Nisar on blocking problematic content, but what it stands to gain from a deal with Pakistani policymakers is something that it values much more.
Facebook’s activities in Pakistan, which Nisar was briefed about in the meeting, are going to be linked with Facebook's Free Basics project, which involves targeting 600,000 school-going children to 'increase internet literacy among youth'.
Free Basics, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s personal project, is a revolutionary idea - at least on paper. It allows those without conventional access to the internet to explore basic versions of multiple websites and platforms. Weather reports, news, Facebook and games are just some of the things people will have ‘free’ access to under Free Basics.
The expansion of this project, as it turns out, was a key agenda item for the Nisar-Kaplan meeting.
Free Basics and net neutrality
Facebook’s Free Basics project has been shot down in India and elsewhere because of concerns over what is known as the principle of 'net neutrality'.
Net neutrality is simply the idea that the internet should remain an open platform where information can be exchanged freely between providers and consumers.
In practice, this requires that internet service providers (ISPs), when processing requests from customers, do not favour a particular platform or website over another and ensure that all websites and applications are equally accessible.
Net neutrality ensures that your ISP does not charge you more if you want to stream content from YouTube or Netflix rather than from a local video-sharing site (or even vice versa). It also ensures that your ISP does not restrict your streaming speed while you browse foreign websites, but boosts your bandwidth when browsing a local website (which might be paying it to do so). Each provider thus gets a level playing field to reach consumers of its content.
It is this idea that has allowed small, home-based startups — like Facebook itself — to become giants online. It has also ensured that news from both small and large organisations is equally accessible to readers.
How exactly does Free Basics harm the industry?
For starters, by allowing access to only a small number of websites and platforms, Free Basics provides a clear edge to them over others. New entrants and small developers, even with brilliant interfaces and content, will find it difficult to break in and will have to first get on board with Facebook if they want to reach wider markets.
Facebook could (theoretically) use this power to monopolise the internet and control, to a great degree, what kind of information is available to its users.
Although Zuckerberg has dismissed claims that net neutrality will be affected by the project, he has yet to answer some critical questions: Why is it that only certain websites would be available on the portal rather than basic versions of all websites? And why is it that this particular model, which threatens net neutrality, was chosen when others could have worked much better?
Facebook already has ongoing collaborations in Pakistan with two major telecom operators, Telenor and Zong, in connection with the Free Basics project, meaning that it already has control over millions of users that other platforms do not.
"We raised concerns regarding net neutrality when Facebook first began its collaboration with Telenor a year ago," Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation told Dawn.com.
To her dismay, however, "there is no conversation or debate [at the policy level] in Pakistan about issues like net neutrality. Even the IT sector in Pakistan does not realise the true impact of this project.”
When contacted, Telenor Pakistan said that it saw Facebook Free Basics as a part of its "ambition to bring ‘Internet for All’ and affordable access to basic online services".
Regarding the impact of the project on its paid internet services, Telenor spokesperson Areej Aurangzeb Khan said that the company feels the project is "great" for internet uptake in developing economies and its benefit to the company is "essentially long-term".
It also did not see the project as raising concern with regards to net neutrality as it falls under Telenor's idea of an "Open Internet". The company said it believes "everyone should be able to enjoy the full benefits of the Internet" and in providing customers the ability to choose products that serve their needs, which could be "full-fledged high speed services" or "more limited and cheaper access".
In conversation with Dawn.com, Shahzad Ahmad, country director of Bytes for All, asked the all-important question: whose responsibility is it to ensure affordable internet is available to everyone?
“The government created the Universal Service Fund (USF) to ensure connectivity for people from mountainous regions and disconnected areas; budget adjustments and corruption have led to its practical demise,” Ahmad recalled. The aims of USF were similar to Free Basics — provide people cut off from communication networks a chance to maintain contact.
“It is the responsibility of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Ministry of Information and Technology [not private companies] to ensure that internet users are protected,” he said.
"Governments in Pakistan are not fully aware of what the internet entails," Dad added, citing the oft-criticised national IT policy as an example. "The Punjab Information Technology Board is doing some work but governments in other provinces have no idea of issues like net neutrality."
With Pakistanis increasingly using internet, especially social media platforms, for their daily dose of information, a Facebook-monopolised internet would mean they would only know what Facebook wants them to know.
So while Nisar may be under the impression that he has been able to increase his control over social media after his meeting with Kaplan, in the long run, he could lose it all if Facebook successfully monopolises the internet.
The 'success' of the July 7 meeting therefore presents a potential danger for Pakistan’s internet users — not only could Pakistanis be censored from saying what the interior minister does not want them to say, but also from knowing what Facebook does not want them to know.