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Internet.org – enlightened self-interest?

Internet.org is a Facebook-led platform ostensibly designed to provide people in developing nations with free internet. The idea was to allow a select number of services (a few dozen) to provide curated internet content for free, initially in Zambia, India, Colombia, Guatemala, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, the Philippines and Indonesia.

The hope was that this would encourage a greater uptake of paid internet services in these regions. A key feature of the platform is that all content must be able to run on modest hardware (and in particular smart phones, as cellular infrastructure is generally much more developed in the target countries than land-based internet.)

However, while some viewed this scheme as a positive measure that would bring internet access to a digitally disenfranchised poor, grave concerns have been raised about net neutrality. Despite the fact that well respected services such as Wikipedia, the Facts for Life health site run by the United Nations Children’s Fund, BBC News, Facebook, and AccuWeather (plus some local news and sports results providers) were available through the platform, many were deeply concerned over such heavy prioritizing of content for so many people who have few other sources of information.

It costs tens of billions of dollars every year to run the internet, and no operator could afford this if everything were free.’

This issue came to a head in India, were a number of publishers, including the Times of India, withdrew from the project,

We support net neutrality because it creates a fair, level playing field for all companies – big and small – to produce the best service and offer it to consumers. We will lead the drive towards a neutral internet, but we need our fellow publishers and content providers to do so as well, so that the playing field continues to be level.

Despite initially defending its position, Facebook last week moved to counter claims that Internet.org is antithetical to notions of net neutrality by opening up the service to ‘everyone.’

Internet.org is very much Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s pet project

Although now available to a much wider range of developers, content hosted on the Internet.org platform must conform to 3 main criteria,

  1. It must not be data intensive (so no video files, and resources will be truncated at 1MB)
  2. All features must be able to run on low-end phones (so no Java or Flash). Secure HTTPS connections are also banned , which this has caused alarm amongst critics, but Zuckerberg has made it clear this is only a temporary problem (according to the technical specification, services that rely SSL/TLS are currently supported by the app, but not via the mobile web interface ’until we have a solution there as well.’)
  3. All services must be approved by Internet.org, and must encourage users to ultimately pay for a full internet service by pushing for broader engagement with the internet as whole.

The free services can be accessed through a special Android app, the Internet.org website, the Facebook for Android app, or using the Opera Mini browser.

Despite opening up the platform to any developer willing to meet the design criteria, not everyone is impressed. Nikil Pahwa from activist group SavetheInternet.in, for example, argues that,

It’s not philanthropy. It isn’t giving people access to the internet. It’s giving people access to only Facebook and a few other sites. This is a move by Facebook to become even more dominant. It’s a very dangerous thing for the entire world, not just India, because Facebook is not the internet. The internet is millions of sites and we must preserve that diversity.

Concerns also linger about the current lack HTTPS support (which means that Facebook can monitor all data accessed through Internet.org, and also allows ISP’s to snoop on users’ online activity.) According to its data policy,

‘[Facebook collects] information when you install, run or use any of our services, including the free websites and services provided through Internet.org…. When you request access to a website or service, we may modify the request and route it through our servers so your mobile operator knows not to charge you for the data you use to access the websites. We may retain information collected through this process (such as your IP address, the URLs you access, and the time you accessed them) and use this information to provide, understand, and improve services from us and from our website and operator partners. We may also use this information to determine your eligibility to receive free services and to provide you with relevant offers and services from your operator’

As professor of technology law at the University of East Anglia, Paul Bernal, told Motherboard,

However they may want to present Internet.org, Facebook are not in the business of philanthropy, they’re in the business of making money. With Internet.org that means two things: capturing a market, then using that market. They want people to be hooked in, and then their data is, effectively, controlled by Facebook. In the current era, if you can control someone’s data, you have a huge amount of control over them. What’s more, they regularly change those data policies—so if the only way to get access to the net for people is via Internet.org then they’re at the mercy of whatever changes Facebook brings along.

In our opinion it is clear that Facebook hopes to exploit capitalize on the as yet untapped market where two thirds of the world’s population has no internet access. Zuckerberg’s vision is a very capitalist (but possibly also very genuinely held) one, that progress can only be achieved through enlightened self-interest.

Only time will tell whether he is right, and at what cost such progress is bought.

Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all.

(widely attributed to John Maynard Keynes)


Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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One response to “Internet.org – enlightened self-interest?

  1. >services that rely SSL/TLS are currently supported by the app, but not via the mobile web interface ’until we have a solution there as well.’)

    Full stop, quotation mark and bracket looked like a winky face haha. Hopefully they will find a “solution” for SSL that works both for the users and for Facebook.

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