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After Zero Rating Backlash, Facebook Returns With New, Somewhat Murky 'Express WiFi' Initiative

You might recall that earlier this year there was a massive backlash against Facebook for its often clumsy attempts to try and dominate emerging developing nation ad markets through what many saw as bogus altruism. The entire fracas bubbled over in India, where regulators banned Facebook’s attempt to create a sort of zero-rated, net neutrality-violating walled garden of Facebook-curated content under the pretense of helping the nation’s farmers. Facebook didn’t help itself by trying to drum up fake support for its initiatives while labeling those worried about the plan as extremists.

Under the original idea, low-income families got access to a limited crop of Facebook-approved content; sort of a glorified AOL for poor people. However, net neutrality advocates and critics like Mozilla were (justly) concerned with this giving Facebook too much power over content, so they consistently argued that if Facebook was so desperately interested in helping the poor — the company and its initiative should focus on providing actual broadband connectivity.

Fast forward to this week, and Facebook appears to have dusted off its trousers and is preparing to try again. The company’s website this week announced that it would be bringing something called “Express WiFi” to India. The website is almost hysterically short on details, only offering explanations like this:

“With Express Wifi, we’re working with carriers, internet service providers, and local entrepreneurs to help expand connectivity to underserved locations around the world. We’re currently live in India, and are expanding to other regions soon.”

Facebook not only isn’t really explaining what Express WiFi is, they’re not saying how much it costs, where it’s available, or giving even the slightest technical explanation of how the system and software works. It could actually be a good thing. Or it might be terrible. No one can actually say based on the little info provided. The end result has been oodles of articles with promotional photos like this one highlighting Facebook’s incredible altruism and showcasing Zuck as a man of the people. But not a single one could be bothered to explain how this new initiative differs from Facebook’s last, arguably bungled Free Basics effort.

It took a little digging, but the company provided this still relatively ambiguous statement on Express WiFi:

Currently we are working with ISP and operator partners to test Express Wi-Fi with public Wi-Fi deployments in multiple pilot sites. This solution empowers ISPs, operators, and local entrepreneur retailers to offer quality internet access to their village, town or region.

  • Express Wi-Fi customers can purchase fast, reliable and affordable data packs via digital vouchers to access the Internet on the Express Wi-Fi network.
  • We focus on building a sustainable economic model for all stakeholders involved, so that local retailer entrepreneurs, ISPs, operators, and Facebook can continue to invest in and operate lasting connectivity.
  • We believe a sustainable economic model is the one which can scale to bring all of India online.
  • That’s still kind of murky, and Facebook’s refusal to explain precisely how this system will work (and just what its software at the heart of the initiative does, collects or delivers) raises a few warning flags, since you’d think Facebook would want to clearly ease the minds of net neutrality activists in India. Still, at least on the surface, it appears that Facebook may have actually listened to its critics that pointed out the best way to bring the internet to the poor — is to actually bring the internet to the poor. Quite a novel idea.

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