Some quick thoughts on Facebook’s announcement yesterday of Internet.org, an industry coalition that seeks to “cut the cost of providing mobile Internet services to one percent of its current level within five to 10 years by improving the efficiency of Internet networks and mobile phone software.” They plan on reaching this overarching goal in a number of ways — for example, by building applications and cheap phones that transmit data more efficiently. They say that their Facebook app for Android, for example, will soon require one-tenth the amount of data transmission for the same amount of usage.
Facebook also plans on replicating a promotion that they launched earlier this year in Mexico. Customers of the mobile monopoly Telcel were given unlimited access to a special Facebook app when they purchased a Nokia Asha handset. They have to buy a separate, costly data module if they want to view any other website from their phone. But access to Facebook and Facebook messenger are completely free.
Allow me to wallow in a paragraph of nostalgia before coming around to make my actual point. Compared to many of my techie friends, I was a relative latecomer to the wonders of the World Wide Web. It wasn’t until 2001 that it struck me that for about $10 a month I could purchase my very own domain (in fact, I purchased dozens) and rent space on a server to publish as many web pages as I wanted. Those web pages wouldn’t just be available to me; they were for the entire world to see. I checked out a book from the university library and learned the basics of HTML in a week. Then I started reading the website A List Apart religiously. I learned that HTML should control the formatting of your web page, but something called CSS should control its design. I was able to master CSS in about a month. Making a website look good on a variety of browsers — Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer — was a real pain in the ass, but I was amazed at how quickly I went from knowing nothing about design to feeling like a real designer. It even made me money. Within months I was getting more requests than I could respond to asking me to design websites for others. Finally, I came to discover the power of “dynamic websites.” Publishing content to the web could be much more efficient than printing it on paper. It all came down to putting the right content in the right place in a database and letting some fairly simple code do the rest. I began to keep a text file on my desktop of my favorite quotes that would automatically get uploaded to my server at the end of the day. Then, each of those quotes — separated by a line space — would go into a database. Every time a reader opened up my website, one of those quotes would be shown at random at the top of my website. I learned the basics of PHP and SQL in order to program databases and create websites from them. Then I discovered b2, which later became WordPress, and I’ve been using it for my online publishing ever since.
All this is to say that in about a year I became a functional website developer without ever taking a class. Not only did I have my own printing press … I made my own printing press. It was an exhilarating feeling. And it led to so much more. We used the same basic technology to build Global Voices. Facebook was built on PHP. And Kiva and the first version of YouTube and so many other websites. We began to use the term “open web” to refer to the ability to publish and access code and content without restrictions.
Granted, the open web wasn’t for everyone. My first critique of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It is that it doesn’t recognize the important advancements that platforms like Twitter and Facebook made to increase participation by the majority of Internet users. Not everyone has the time nor inclination to spend a year of their extra time learning HTML, CSS and PHP. Nor do they have the time to maintain their servers nor fight off spam. Even the greatest defenders of the open web like Larry Lessig are now using corporate, for-profit solutions like Tumblr to publish their content. My second critique of Zittrain’s argument — that we will lose the open web to a future of apps and appliances — is that I never saw it as a zero sum game. Just because we own an iPhone doesn’t mean we’ve given up on programming our own applications as well. We can be both creative (“generative,” in Zittrain’s words) while also enjoying the convenience of appliances that just work — like my Amazon Kindle.
But with Facebook’s announcement of how they plan on bringing the next three billion Internet users online, I am fearful that the next generation — the young teenagers that surround me here in Mexico City — will conflate “the Internet” with Facebook. I am concerned that they will miss out on the exhilarating sensation of programming your own platform or application and sharing it with the world.
I have been discussing this fear with my friend Alfonso Tamés over the past few months. During the 20th century, Mexico was a maker economy. It manufactured goods. It fixed things when they were broken. There is even a Nahuatl word, rasquache essentially means “hacking,” re-purposing objects to meet new needs. Visit any poor, rural community in Mexico and you’ll see discarded appliances turned potted plants and fencing made out of former mattress springs.
On the outskirts of Torreón, Coahuila, a mailbox made out of a tire and in the background a fence made out of bedsprings, watering hose, and a refrigerator door.
Mexico’s maker culture is starting to change, however. Instead of making goods, they are increasingly imported via Walmart. Instead of fixing what is broken, the new middle class is learning from its northern neighbors to simply throw them away and buy the latest version. And, unfortunately, this increasing culture of passive consumerism over active making seems to carry over to the Internet. With the exception of a small minority of entrepreneurs and digital artists, few Mexicans are digital makers. The vast majority spend their time chatting, watching YouTube videos, and scrolling down an endless waterfall of Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. The tendency is even built into the structure of connectivity. As Alfonso is fond of pointing out, Mexico’s fastest download speeds are starting to reach 50mb/s. But most upload speeds are still around .2mb/s. Perfect for binging on a season of Mad Men on Netflix, but pretty pathetic for uploading your own video to your server.
So, no. We shouldn’t celebrate Facebook’s efforts to “bring the internet to all” because that is not what they are doing. When Zuckerberg says that access to the Internet is a human right, what he means is that access to Facebook should be a human right. What we want to both protect and radically expand is access to the open web. And we need to use both policy and education as tools to do it.