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Internet.org is already available to 800 million people in nine countries across Africa and Southeast Asia. (Photo: Michael Coghlan/cc/flickr)

Connect the World or Capture It? Critics Raise Alarm Over Facebook's Spurious Internet.org

Facebook service promises free web access for the developing world, while threatening the privacy and rights of hundreds of millions worldwide

Lauren McCauley

Privacy rights and open internet advocates are sounding the alarm after Facebook on Monday announced changes to its "free" Internet for the developing world, dubbed Internet.org, which critics say threatens to make the social networking company the de facto Internet "gatekeeper" for hundreds of millions worldwide.

Branded as an initiative to "connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have internet access," Internet.org will reportedly work with local telecom providers to provide free Internet access to a handful of pre-selected websites—including Facebook—as well as others related to "health, education, communication, finance, jobs and local information." The application has already launched in a number of African and Southeast Asian countries, as well as Colombia in South America.

Internet.org has previously come under fire for violating the principle of net neutrality because it only offers access to certain websites. In India, a number of major publications including the Times of India media group have withdrawn from the site in protest.

In response to that critique, in a video address on Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg announced a new platform model, under which Facebook will offer "an open program for developers" to create "very simple and data efficient" sites to be among those offered to Internet.org users.

"Giving people more choice over the services they use is incredibly important," Facebook said.

"However they may want to present Internet.org, Facebook are not in the business of philanthropy, they’re in the business of making money,"
—Paul Bernal, University of East Anglia

However, this new platform is even worse, argues Josh Levy, advocacy director for the digital rights group Access.

The change, Levy writes at Wired on Tuesday, "sets Facebook up to serve as a quasi-internet service provider—except that unlike a local or national telco, all web traffic will be routed through Facebook’s servers. In other words, for people using Internet.org to connect to the internet, Facebook will be the de facto gatekeeper of the world’s information."

Considering the market that Internet.org hopes to reach, that amounts to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. On April 17, Zuckerburg said that more than 800 million people in nine countries, including Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, already have access to the site.

In addition, Levy warns that by excluding commonly used security protocols, such as SSL and TLS, in their criteria for potential developers, Internet.org threatens to "undermine the security" of their users. 

Further, Facebook's new platform "lacks transparency," as it has failed to disclose important policy details regarding the storage of and government requests for user data.

As Vice journalist Jordan Pearson points out, because Internet.org user access will be routed through Facebook's servers, the company will "get a huge amount of insight into users’ online activity." What's more, Internet.org users will be subject to Facebook's data policy, which leaves open the possibility for their information to be shared with advertisers as well as the Facebook's partner organizations.

"However they may want to present Internet.org, Facebook are not in the business of philanthropy, they’re in the business of making money," Paul Bernal, professor of technology law at the UK-based University of East Anglia, told Pearson. "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."


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