Facebook's Free Basics furore: Where do you sit on the customer data debate?

16th Feb 2016

Like AOL before it, Facebook offers a walled garden service to its users. AOL is of course now defunct: a museum piece from our digitally connected past. What killed it was making the wrong assumption about how customers saw the value exchange.

The brand believed it was based on the promise of being kept ‘safe’ from the perils of an open internet in return for relinquishing the freedom to explore it. In the end, customer curiosity about experiencing those perils for themselves was the undoing of AOL.

 Did India’s rejection of Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ signal the start of a similar existential threat for one of the current dominant definers of what’s good for us online?

I first became aware of just how sensitive a topic the Free Basics programme had become with Indians when I recently tweeted the following. It was just a well chosen quote from a fuller analysis of the Free Basics situation. To be honest, I had not appreciated the size of hornet’s nest until I noticed a much higher than usual rate of retweeting. Clearly Facebook had managed to really piss off a lot of people.

Tweet data

After the court ruling against Facebook, I came across this powerfully titled article “Facebook and the New Colonialism”, which added more back story.  There are plenty of lessons to be learnt from it which I want to share with you as scene setting for the reason for this article – how we treat customer data – which I will come onto shortly.

So here’s what happened as described by the article’s author Adrienne Lafrance.

“Facebook characterizes its intentions like this: humans have a fundamental right to access the internet. A platform that provides limited access is much better than nothing. Facebook isn’t motivated by business interests because the Free Basics version of the social network doesn’t even feature advertisements. And Facebook isn’t exerting undue control on people’s web experiences (or squelching other sites) because half the people who try Free Basics end up paying for full access to the web within a month anyway. As Zuckerberg put it in an op-ed for The Times of India in December: “Who could possibly be against this?”

Well, here’s the other side of the argument: when mobile network operators allow some companies to offer access to their sites without charging people for data use, it gives those companies an unfair advantage. Free Basics makes Facebook a gatekeeper with too much leverage - so much that it conflicts with the foundational principles of the open web. Those principles, and what people mean when they talk about net neutrality, can be summed up this way: internet service providers should treat all content equally, without favouring certain sites or platforms over others.

Facebook’s mindset around this rejection was of being the wronged party. Zuckerberg was widely reported as being ‘disappointed in the decision’ but still keen to continue what he obviously believes is his humanitarian outreach. This was a politically safe response from Facebook’s CEO, albeit one still damned by Adrienne Lafrance as being neo colonialist in its very conception. Here’s a telling comment she unearthed that reveals the sensitivity behind the whole issue.  

Internet service providers should treat all content equally, without favouring certain sites or platforms over others.

“We’ve been stupid with the East India Company,” one Reddit user said in a forum about Free Basics last year, referring to the British Raj. “Never again brother, Never again!”

But while Zuckerberg painted his position as ‘patient philanthropist’, one of his most well known investors Marc Andreessen, (inventor of the first big internet browser back in the day) spoke his mind and promptly publically regretted it, given the backlash that followed. This is what he tweeted to his half million followers.

“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”

In other words Andreessen was calling out the entire Indian state for not knowing what was good for them!

Zuckerberg was so alarmed at this vivid peekaboo into Facebook’s strategic mindset that he was forced to follow up with his own post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”

While I’m using Facebook to make what I hope end up as some important points about customer centricity, of course they are not the only brand or nation that act in such ‘colonial’ ways. Becoming top dog always seems to trigger hubris about knowing better than others. 

I’ll use a final quote from the author and one of her interviewees, Deepika Bahri, an English professor at Emory University who focuses on postcolonial studies, to pivot from what I discussed so far into the topic of customer data.

“Consider, too, the dominant business models online. Companies commodify people as users, mining them for data and personally targeting them with advertising. “In digital capitalism—another stage of imperialism?—capital and corporation underwrite free-ness,” “That’s why Facebook can claim to be always free.”

The ‘privacy is dead’ argument sucks

To date, our online participation has been based on these assumptions. It’s free in return for your data. It’s personalised in return for your data. It’s cheaper in return for your data. Ever since Google and Facebook evangelised this model, it’s been normalised as the new value exchange in a digital world. Everyone, including your organisation, sits on the coattails of this assumption and fills their funnel from it.

So why bite the hand that feeds?

Because although market research says that consumers have traditionally bought into this value exchange, the Free Basics push back might just signal an awakening of what’s acceptable behaviour.

To date, online participation has been based on these assumptions: it’s free in return for your data; it’s personalised in return for your data; it’s cheaper in return for your data.

I say this not solely because of Free Basics but from a much more persistent undercurrent that I see is due to break out into mainstream corporate behaviour.

As is the manner of all trends, it is as a result of many things coming together at the same time.  

  • The impact of persistent level of online fraud and ID theft.
  • The insistence of governments in knowing what we are up to in our private communications.
  • The degree to which mobile apps covertly suck up personal data.
  • The increasing sense that the Internet of Things is listening and learning about us in real-time.

I’m sure you can add your own examples to this list. Anyway, I was delighted to discover the first signs of how things might be starting to change as I was searching for examples of Intelligent Assistants – another pet project of mine right now.

In the followed quote, Australian brand MYWave describe how they are concerned about the personal data these AI fuelled digital companions are going to need to gather from us in order to better serve our needs.

MYWave want us to know that does not mean we have to relinquish even greater proportions of our dwindling privacy. Of course, it remains to be seen how this all plays out, but their initial value proposition relative the ones we looked at earlier in this article is to be applauded.

“MyWave offers a virtual personal assistant called Frank (a name chosen because it means "honest and free" according to CEO Geraldine McBride). A little like Siri, Cortana or Ask Google, Frank uses what he knows about you to make suggestions on your behalf. Unlike those data-harvesting virtual PAs though, Frank does not share the user's information with any third party without their explicit approval. He's built on the principles of privacy by design.”

And that’s the key phrase ‘privacy by design’. It’s a phrase with growing currency. It seems Snowden (the ex NSA analyst) has managed to catalyse a change in official thinking. At least at European level.

‘Privacy By Design’ is now referenced by UK data protection watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). Most importantly, the phrase "Privacy by Design" will be included in the forthcoming EU General Data Protection Regulation (see Article 23). The first time it has appeared in a legal document. No doubt revenge is sweet and I’m sure the Americans will increasingly regret being found out that they bugged Angela Merkel’s phone.

The checklist around what Privacy By Design means is worth noting. In summary, it is building privacy into the design, operation and management of a given system, business process or design specification. The concept is based on seven simple foundational principles:

  • Being proactive rather than reactive.
  • Having privacy as the default setting.
  • Having privacy embedded into design.
  • Avoiding the pretence of false dichotomies, such as privacy vs security.
  • Providing full life-cycle management of data.
  • Ensuring visibility and transparency of data.
  • Being user-centric.

As an initial question, how well do your own organisations’ data policies and practice support or subvert this framework?

For instance, if you provide a mobile app, it should concern you that only 1 in 20 of us here in the UK read the T&Cs. (source: UK research on behalf of investment specialist Skandia). That is of course if you support the idea that customers have a voice in the matter of their personal data. Many feel the Apple version of T&Cs is a complete joke (21,586 words long! By comparison, this article is a mere tenth of the size at 2,045 words).

This is despite Tim Cook’s insistence that his organisation takes privacy seriously.  Of course, what that might mean is that Apple should remain the only set of eyes allowed to track their customers’ behaviour.

Google does make some attempt to show you some of what they know about you. You might want to have a go at using Google Takeout. This allows you see every search you ever made on Google that was visible to them.  This may or may not worry you. But you might want to think about how your customers see you in terms of what you know about them and how you use their data.

All of this brings me to my punchline and the changing tide of what’s possible. Access to your customer data is not an automatic right. It’s a privileged ownership. It is not something to be acquired covertly. It is to be granted through explicit permission.

Access to your customer data is not an automatic right. It’s a privileged ownership. It is not something to be acquired covertly. It is to be granted through explicit permission.

This is the sea change in play right now.

Already there are services that can help alter the balance. One such player is Meeco, an early participant in the personal information economy.

The idea behind Meeco and similar platforms is that individuals should be able to control what data they share and with whom. Rather than their personal data being harvested, sold on and used in ways they cannot understand or control, they should instead be able to vet access to that data and license it to interested parties on the basis of "what's in it for me?

Here a quote from the website. Again, I have no direct experience of what they are selling in terms of its effectiveness, but as a consumer I like what I’m reading:

Delete or change access at any timeUse Meeco’s unique Consent Manager to decide who has access to your information and for how long. When you share simply select the duration:

  • Minutes or hours.
  • Expire on a specific date.
  • Forever or until your change access.

Sharing on your termsMeeco gives you the power to issue your own T&Cs:

  • Decide how you want your information to be used.
  • Include your terms together with any notes.
  • Save your favourite T&Cs to make sharing simple.

This is what I see coming into mainstream consumer expectations as soon as the word gets out that other models are possible and can work.


It’s time to choose on which side your organisation sits in terms of the debate. Do you consider customers as ******* dumb as Zuckerberg was widely reported as once saying of his initial customers. Or do they have the right to see their CRM record? Licence their personal data set on a time limited basis to you? Hold you accountable for its safety?

Where ever you choose to draw the line, it’s becoming a reason for customers to gravitate towards or away from brands.

Have you even started to think through what this means and redefine your position in the new personal information economy? It’s time to choose sides.


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Replies (4)

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By pusie23
16th Feb 2016 14:01

The anticolonialism quote has dragged this debate into the gutter. For what its worth I think that most web users buy in to the idea that there is a value exchange taking place whenever they use the Internet and that their privacy and their personal information is what they contribute to use the services on offer. I truly believe most people feel the same except for the very vocal minority that always get their knickers in a twiest about these things. But that idiot man with his stupid comments makes me want to change sides. Ha.

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By martinhw
16th Feb 2016 16:55

I think the way you characterise the consumer mindset has been true to date. 'Given some to get some'. But the next wave of data gathering is so much more powerful. That's why I think sensible brands should pre-empt and state where they stand in their use of customer data. I think transparency of intent and integrity of use is going to be important to maintain sufficient trust to make the whole value exchange work

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By Tibor Kazimir
16th Feb 2016 20:35

There are too many bad examples of using customer data but what about good examples? Are there any virtuous companies we can follow? Maybe perhaps a company that is doing privacy by design as stated in this article?

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Replying to Tibor Kazimir:
By martinhw
17th Feb 2016 14:47

Well if you check out MyWave, they are signed up to the idea and claim to have baked it into their solutions. Also I mentioned Meeko who are worth checking out.

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