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The Ethics of Free

The latest Facebook controversy surrounds their plan to offer a service called Free Basics that allows people with feature phones (in the developing world) to access online services without paying for data. The problem is that they can only access Facebook approved apps.

My Take

Here is the first ethical question in a nutshell. Is it worth trading your freedom to choose the apps of your choice for access to Facebook’s choices for free?

You can’t just surf over to anyplace on the web with Free Basics. Which raises the question: Is Free Basics an altruistic effort to connect the world’s financially strapped people to information and opportunities, or a neocolonial race to capitalize on those markets?

On the surface, this is not an ethical question but an economic one. I can choose limited and free or unlimited and pay for it. As an adult in a free society, shouldn’t I be empowered to make that choice? Why are there ethics involved?

But that is just the surface. As Dan Ariely’s chapter on free stuff brilliantly describes, there is a visceral power of “free” that causes us to make irrational and counterproductive choices. So the end user is not really making an informed and empowered decision. The Indian government has the service on hold while they consider this issue. It also might violate Net Neutrality, but that is a story for another time.

Zuckerberg makes the strong case that giving millions of poor people access to the Internet will lift many of them out of poverty (he cites 10%). They can access job searching, health care, crop prices, and local services – even with the limited apps that Free Basics offers. He further claims that there are no political criteria in what is there, just based on cost of service and what Facebook sees as valuable to the end user.

But there is an inherent bias that Facebook can’t ignore. No matter how much their process removes politics or value judgments, there is no way to get these values out of our minds. So whoever is making those decisions is going to be inserting his or her values and Facebook’s values into the list of services.

Your Turn

So the real question is whether this is still a worthwhile tradeoff.

  • Do you take the fully libertarian position that as a private company Facebook should be allowed to offer Free Basics and as private citizens we should be allowed to accept it? With no government interference?
  • Do you take the fully paternalistic position that the government needs to protect us from our ignorance of and susceptibility to persuasive design tactics that might have unconscious influences we can’t account for in our personal choices?
  • Or somewhere in the middle?

Let us know in the comments.

Image Credit: geralt

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