Data & Society > our work > blog posts > The Hacker Way Forward: How Facebook Can Fix ‘Free Basics’ in Two Simple Moves

Medium | 03.27.16

The Hacker Way Forward: How Facebook Can Fix ‘Free Basics’ in Two Simple Moves

Andrew McLaughlin

D&S Advisor Andrew McGlaughlin reflects on Facebook’s approach to implementing their Free Basics program:

In opening a door to the Internet, Facebook doesn’t need to be a gatekeeper The good news, though, is that Facebook could quite easily fix its two core flaws and move forward with a program that is effective, widely supported, and consistent with Internet ideals and good public policy.

Rather than mandating an application process, vetting supplicants, and maintaining and making happy a list of approved service providers, Facebook could simply enforce all of its service restrictions through code. Entirely consistent with principles of network neutrality, Facebook could provide a stripped-down browser that only renders, for example, mobile-optimized websites built in HTML, but not Javascript, iframes, video files, flash applets, images over a certain size, etc. Facebook can publish the technical specs for its low-bandwidth browser; ideally, those specs would map directly to existing open web standards and best practices for mobile web pages and other services. When the user wants to go to a site or service, the browser makes the request and the target server delivers its response — if the browser can render what the server sends, it does; if it can’t, it tells the user as much. As the operators of websites and online services notice a surge in users with these kinds of Free Basics browsers, they will work to ensure their mobile web offering renders the way they want it to.

In this gatekeeper-less model, neither the user nor the online service has to ask Facebook’s permission to connect with each other. And that’s what makes all the difference. Rather than referring to an approved set of ~300 companies, the word “Basics” in Free Basics would denote any site or service anywhere in the world that provides a standards-compliant, low-bandwidth, mobile-optimized version.

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