In the countries where internet technologies were originally developed, payment for access has largely followed one standard approach. For connectivity, subscribers pay an internet service provider for the ability to send and receive packets of information from anywhere on the internet. Sometimes subscribers pay per gigabyte or per month, but the essential model is the same everywhere — you pay and you receive connectivity.
This model is not how the internet has been rolling out in an increasing number of countries. Instead the usual method of acquiring internet access for millions of people is through Facebook’s Free Basics program. It allows someone with a phone and SIM card to access certain parts of the internet entirely free of charge. The mobile company’s costs are paid for by Facebook, which makes money by selling advertising through its tools. 14 The limit to the free offer is that citizens cannot access any site or app on the internet, only those that Facebook subsidizes access to, such as Wikipedia and Dictionary.com.
This approach means that a range of “standard” citizen participation tools, ones hosted outside the free zone, may not be accessible to citizens in certain countries. For example, independent petition sites, activist websites, political party deliberation platforms, or government consultation sites will only be available to “Free Basics” users if the company paying to subsidize the internet access actively permits their access.
If current patterns of differential access persist, certain kinds of digitally enabled civic and political activity will start to thrive in some countries while being almost completely missing in others.
14: Facebook’s Internet.org website reports its Free Basics program to be available in more than 60 countries. Last accessed on August 25, 2018, https://info.internet.org/en/story/where-weve- launched/. ↩