This week Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Internet.org, its marquee project to “connect two-thirds of the world that don’t have internet access,” is now inviting any website or service to join the program. According to Zuckerberg, this change—which follows criticism that the program violates Net Neutrality principles—would “give people even more choice and more free services, while still creating a sustainable economic model to connect every single person in the world.”
But when you examine how the program would work, it becomes clear that rather than improve a service that is already busy violating Net Neutrality around the world, the change actually makes things worse.
It 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. And unfortunately, Facebook is already showing what a poor gatekeeper it would be.
This kind of connectivity is not “the internet.” It’s more accurate to call it the “Facebooknet.” Internet.org will offer websites and services that are submitted directly to it, similar to how users choose apps from Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store. A truly open internet cannot, and must not, work like an app store with one company holding the key.
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When he announced the Internet.org platform, Zuckerberg went out of his way to voice support for Net Neutrality, meaning his definition of Net Neutrality. “If a person has slower access to a video because their mobile operator demands a fee, then that’s bad,” he said. However, Zuckerberg has no issue with the practice of providing free access to some sites but not others, and that’s just as bad.
If Mark Zuckerberg actually cares about Net Neutrality, Internet.org must honor its basic principles. For instance, Facebook could leverage its significant influence by offering—or urging telecoms to offer—basic data plans, with low data caps, to vulnerable communities, enabling unfettered and non-discriminatory access to the whole internet. Such a shift would directly address the goal of connecting billions of people worldwide to the full internet.
Facebook is rapidly rolling out Internet.org all across the developing world, announcing new partnerships at a concerning rate (Colombia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Panama, the Philippines, to name a few of the recent launches). Perhaps that’s why more and more people are becoming aware of what’s at stake in the global Net Neutrality debate. Dozens of NGOs around the world have coalesced around a global definition of Net Neutrality. In India, more than a million people have submitted comments to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on Net Neutrality and Indian tech companies are speaking out about Internet.org, in many cases voting with their feet by withdrawing from the program.
We’re now at turning point. The next three billion people to go online could enjoy the same empowering, non-discriminatory access to knowledge and tools for expression as the first three billion. Or they could get a second-class experience, limited to internet-connected services and applications in a walled garden built by big tech and telecom companies—with the open internet just beyond their reach.