When Facebook launched its controversial Internet.org app earlier this year, founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared to be taken somewhat off-balance by the backlash against the app.
Internet.org was intended to allow people in developing countries free access to select internet services. Zuckerberg has always argued that the platform will provide a viable way to allow the 57 percent of the world’s population that do not currently access the internet an introduction to its benefits,
“It costs tens of billions of dollars every year to run the internet, and no operator could afford this if everything were free.”
Despite this apparent altruism, many see the Internet.org project as a means of expanding Facebook’s reach into as-yet untapped markets. The very limited number of services initially available caused a storm of protest, amid claims that the app ran roughshod over notions of net neutrality. This issue came to a head in India, were a number of publishers, including the Times of India, withdrew from the project.
Facebook responded by opening the platform up to “everyone” so that any service which matched its guidelines for participation could join. The 3 main criteria for joining are:
- A service must not be data intensive (so no video files, and resources will be truncated at 1MB)
- All features must be able to run on low-end phones (so no Java or Flash).
- 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.
Facebook now boasts that,
“More than 60 new services are available across the 19 countries where free basic services are available… The program is making an impact on people’s lives by providing free health, education, and economic information.”
The Android app also came under heavy criticism for its lack of security, most notably its failure to support the HTTPS connections that keep regular internet users safe from hackers and government surveillance. In the new reboot of the app, now named “Free Basics by Facebook… to better distinguish the Internet.org initiative from the programs and services we’re providing, including Free Basics,” this issue has been addressed. Free Basics now not only supports HTTPS, but Facebook will encrypt information between services that do not support HTTPS and device that do.
This does, however, point to another problem critics have with the platform… in order to provide a free service, all data is routed through Facebook’s servers, allowing Facebook to gather a great deal of information about its users, including “type of device or browser and operating system you use, your app version, app ID and device ID, the time and date of your connection, your mobile operator, IP address, phone number, battery and signal strength, country, language setting, and the Third-Party Services you search for or use in Free Basics.
Despite these concerns, it does seem that with Free Basics, Facebook has moved to address many of the major criticisms levelled at Internet.org, and is now poised to aggressively pursue a policy of getting more people in developing countries online…