Philanthropic gesture or an online dictatorship? We take a closer look at internet.org…
It’s easy to misunderstand sweeping gestures without understanding the motives behind them. When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced in 2013 that he was establishing a partnership with mobile phone companies to bring internet access to the billions of people unable to join the internet revolution, public opinions ranged from the selfless act of a philanthropic maverick to the cynical manipulation of the world’s poorest people.
Now that Facebook’s internet.org scheme is here, it’s possible to determine exactly what this innovative, if hugely controversial, scheme actually entails. In tandem with seven mobile phone companies, internet.org provides a limited number of websites free of charge to anyone who connects via Facebook-approved apps or the internet.org website. Sites like Wikipedia, BBC News and ESPN are freely accessible, along with local content providers. According to Facebook, websites must be optimised for smartphone access and require minimal bandwidth.
Opinion is divided on the scheme, so we’ve outlined the ‘for’s and ‘against’s below…
The argument in favour of internet.org is that it provides people who have no hardwired infrastructure the ability to get online without data costs; limited internet access is better than none. These people may then be able or willing to pay for access to the innumerable sites not available via internet.org, once they’ve established that internet access is desirable or valuable. The project has already launched in ten countries including India, Kenya, Colombia and Indonesia, and Facebook claim nine million people have so far logged on and taken advantage of free data. While the citizens of first world countries have no problems accessing the entire internet through their data packages, internet.org could be the first (and potentially only) exposure people in deprived regions get to the world wide web.
However, there are several major problems with the internet.org model as it currently stands. Firstly, and perhaps most damningly, Facebook is able to select which websites are accessible. An Indian venture capitalist has calculated that only 0.0000002 per cent of the world’s websites are currently available, which rather goes against the principle of being able to enter any address you want into your browser address bar. Other sites can apply to be considered for acceptance on the platform, but they’re powerless to oppose Facebook’s rejection. Many people (including 67 digital rights groups) have argued this represents an attack on freedom of expression and the overarching principle of net neutrality, turning Facebook into an internet gatekeeper.
The motives of internet.org also have to be scrutinised. Despite the .org domain name, this isn’t a not-for-profit campaign. Instead, it’s effectively a thinly-veiled method of boosting Facebook’s social media dominance in the face of their current fairly static first-world subscriber numbers. Of the countries it’s been introduced in so far, internet.org doesn’t have to compete with Google because Google has no viable presence. It’s also been reported that internet.org blocks any purchase or sale websites, any financial, government or educational sites (a startling decision given the supposedly philanthropic nature of this particular enterprise), and finally any communication platforms like LinkedIn. In other words, Facebook is the only real communication tool available to internet.org users, rendering it something of a corporate dictatorship.
There are also fairly punitive restrictions on the nature of content supplied through internet.org or its approved apps. No secure or encrypted data can be sent or received, so information travels through an unencrypted proxy making it susceptible to hacking or state surveillance, far from ideal in many of the countries internet.org is targeted at. Voice chat and video content are all blocked, along with high-resolution images, Java, Flash and file transfers. Google-owned sites like YouTube are also off-limits, while searches have to be undertaken through Bing. Facebook’s presence dominates the other available content, reflecting the fact that internet.org is in many respects little more than facebook.org.
In fairness, it must be noted that internet.org has only just launched version 2.0, and further improvements could be announced at any time. Facebook has already pledged that more sites will be incorporated in future, and support for SSL/TLS will be provided by the Android app before long. There may still be a worthwhile future for Facebook’s internet portal, but it hasn’t got off to an especially promising start.
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