from the growth-for-growth’s-sake dept

Last month, Facebook/Meta laid off more than 11,000 employees as part of the company’s attempt to recover from sagging ad revenues, inflation, and Zuckerberg’s clumsy, poorly executed, and widely ridiculed pivot toward virtual and augmented reality.

Buried in that announcement was the fact that Facebook had also shut down “MetaConnectivity,” its decade-old attempt to shore up broadband access. The program, formerly and quite creatively known as FacebookConnectivity, had done some scattered but interesting work on things like solar-powered drones, fiber-laying robots, and low-Earth orbit satellites.

The project’s goal was always purportedly to expand Internet access, but implementation made it clear that Facebook was often more interested in cornering developing nation ad markets and exerting its power internationally, using connectivity as bridge and entry point for other lobbying efforts.

That was made particularly clear in India around 2015 or so, when the department’s “Free Basics” program attempted to provide low-income users in the global South with a free, highly restricted, Facebook-curated version of the Internet on wireless devices that at one point even banned encryption and only included Facebook-sanctioned content partners.

Activists, experts, and groups like Mozilla routinely tore the Free Basics initiative apart as an assault on the truly open Internet and a transparent gambit to exploit connectivity to expand Facebook power and ad dominance in developing nations. Mozilla put it this way in a blog post back in 2015:

“We understand the temptation to say ‘some content is better than no content,’ choosing a lesser degree of inclusion over openness and equality of opportunity. But it shouldn’t be a binary choice; technology and innovation can create a better way, even though these new models may take some time to develop. Furthermore, choosing limited inclusion today, even though it offers short-term benefits, poses significant risk to the emergence of an open, competitive platform that will ultimately stifle inclusion and economic development.”

Activists in countries like India eventually forced Facebook to retreat from the effort, though its underlying mechanics did a great job exposing Facebook’s altruism in the space as often half-hearted. Its rush into international communications connectivity also frequently exposed how the company prioritized international expansion over actually understanding the impact in countries they were “helping.”

That’s not to say that Meta/Facebook hasn’t done some good things on the telecom front. Its Telecom Infra Project, launched in 2016, was a semi-helpful engineering hub. Facebook also toyed with developing helicopters capable of delivering wireless broadband during emergencies. And it flirted with low-Earth-orbit satellites before much of the staff were gobbled up by Amazon.

Broadband ventures aren’t uncommon for tech giants. Microsoft, for example, has been a key proponent of creative uses of wireless spectrum to shore up access. Google runs its own residential ISP to effectively shame the nation’s telecom monopolies. Like Facebook, both companies simply know that more connectivity means more people using their products and viewing their ads.

But whereas Microsoft and Google’s efforts were frequently truly collaborative efforts to provide true Internet access, Facebook spent the lion’s share of its time trying to push a warped, Facebook-sanctioned alternative to access disguised as altruism. If you criticized the dumber aspects of the program you were labeled an enemy of the poor. That kind of hubris wasn’t received well planet wide.

Free Basics was less about connection and more about providing Facebook with lobbying access to governments as the company attempted to dominate ad markets worldwide. It’s unlikely Meta will want to give much of that access up, and much of this program will likely be re-integrated in other departments to help influence Zuck’s clunky vision of the metaverse down the road.

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Companies: facebook, meta

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