Google debuts Free Zone to challenge Facebook for dominance in developing countries

By Nathaniel Mott , written on November 8, 2012

From The News Desk

Quick, imagine what the Web would be like without Google or Facebook. If you're like me, you probably can't – these companies have ingrained themselves into the fabric of the Web, and entire ecosystems touch at least one of these companies' products at any moment. Legends say that if both companies shut down at the same time the Internet will fold in on itself and become nothing more than self-repeating cat GIFs until time itself weeps. Or something like that.

Jokes aside, Google and Facebook are both vying for the title of most influential Web company. Facebook has its billion users and the ever-touted social graph, and Google has futuristic glasses, self-driving cars, and services that cater to every aspect of the Web. Now both companies are fighting to become the de facto "Web" by giving newly-connected Internet users free access to their own services.

Facebook is trying to accomplish this via Facebook Zero, an initiative that makes the social network accessible to users in developing countries at no charge. Google announced today that it will be doing something similar with Free Zone, which offers access to Gmail, Google+, and Google Search to users in the Philippines – and, in the future, other countries.

"[Free Zone is] aimed at the next billion users of the Internet, many of whom will be in emerging markets and encounter the Internet first on a mobile phone, without ever owning a PC," AbdelKarim Mardini, product manager for Google, told Reuters. This echoes what Jana CEO Nathan Eagle told Quartz about Facebook Zero, saying that “Facebook is literally becoming the internet,” in the Philippines.

So, if you think companies are building "walled gardens" in the US, imagine what the Web must seem like to the people who are using Free Zone or Facebook Zero. Free Zone is particularly wall-y, as it offers free access to Web pages that show up in Google's search results but blocks sites that don't. While this probably won't be an issue for many sites, the fact that all traffic is getting funneled through Google's search results will make the company a true Web gatekeeper.

Both Google and Facebook are working on similar initiatives in the States. Google has been sponsoring free WiFi access in New York and San Francisco for much of 2012, and Facebook is testing a service that would make it possible for small businesses to offer free WiFi to customers who check-in on Facebook. Though the principle is the same for the US and the Philippines, since Google and Facebook want to make it easier to connect to the Web, the methods vary wildly between the two areas.

The main difference is in the amount of control that the companies have on what you can view. Once users have checked in on Facebook or looked at Google's plea to sign up for its Offers product for the umpteenth time, they're free to visit any site with a Google- or Facebook-sponsored connection. (Well, within reason. I'm pretty sure there are public decency laws that put a few restrictions on that principle.)

Not so in the Philippines. Neither Facebook nor Google are content to wait at the Web's doorway and let users wander around to do whatever their little hearts desire. They can go to Facebook, they can use Gmail or Google+, or they can funnel everything through Google Search – that's it. While the companies assume the role of gatekeeper in the US, they quickly become the world's most stringent tour guides elsewhere.

In his Quartz article about Facebook Zero, Christopher Mims concludes:

For the same reason that companies like Unilever are so keen to guarantee that the first shampoo a newly minted member of the global middle class ever tries is a brand they make, Facebook wants to completely own its users’ first contact with the web. The lifetime value of these users could, in the long run, be the main way for Facebook to justify its share price. And it gives Facebook, in a way that not even Google has accomplished, the chance to become the world’s homepage.
Google hasn't taken this lying down, and today's release of Free Zone is likely to be just the first step in Google's push to monetize and control Internet connections in developing countries. Like Facebook, the company seems to think – perhaps rightly – that the best way to make this happen is by controlling the entire experience. Though this isn't an option in the US (regulators would probably be all over that), the uncharted territory offered by developing countries allows Facebook and Google to make up the rules as they go.