Internet.org: Too Good To Be True?

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Mark Zuckerberg never sleeps. With Facebook now topping 1.44 billion active users worldwide, the founder of the social network could rest on his laurels. Instead, he and other Facebook executives have been busy developing “Internet.org”, which, according to the official website, will “connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have Internet access.”

Given that only 33 percent of global citizens have regular Internet access, more and more advocacy groups are calling for Internet access as a basic human right. At first glance, then, the mission of Internet.org seems noble. But concerns about profit and privacy have emerged, leading some to conclude that this “free” Internet may be too good to be true.

The Big Idea

Here’s how it works: Facebook has partnered with a number of mobile phone companies and third-world telecom providers to offer free Internet service for those who cannot otherwise afford access. As of May 10th, the company has rolled out Internet.org in Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Colombia, Ghana, India, Philippines, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.

Users are provided no-cost access from a specific carrier but aren’t able to leverage high-bandwidth services like file downloads or streaming video. The idea here is to provide basic access to information and communication. The problem? It may also run afoul of Net Neutrality.

Closed System

What happens when Facebook supplies the Internet.org app and runs all traffic through its own massive servers? It becomes a de facto Internet service provider (ISP), but without the same kind of restrictions placed on for-pay carriers.

What’s more, Zuckerberg and his company get to decide which websites are part of their Internet and which are blocked off for free users — who always have the option of upgrading to paid plans, many of which are prominently displayed through on-site ads.

According to Wired, this kind of gatekeeping led to pushback from several Indian publications, which said that the company was violating the very Net Neutrality principles it claimed to uphold. Put simply: if Facebook decides what’s free and what isn’t by standing guard over website access, then its Internet isn’t really free.

As a result, the Facebook CEO has announced that any company or website can now apply to join the Internet.org initiative and become part of the content pipeline which users can access freely. Internet.org VP of Product Chris Daniels claims that opening the gates to developers at large was always part of the “roadmap,” and that concerns from Indian users simply accelerated plans that were already in the works. But not everyone is buying this explanation.

Not All Bad?

Some organizations are voicing their support for the Facebook-powered Internet. Venture Beat, for example, points out that while it’s easy to throw stones at Zuckerberg et al. because they’re rich and powerful, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a profit. In fact, as a publicly-traded company, the social media site has the responsibility to do right by its shareholders and generate as much revenue as possible. Since Facebook is under no obligation to offer any kind of free Internet service, even something that’s clearly an advertising vehicle can’t be all bad if it gets more people online, right?

But Not So Great

Two large issues with Internet.org spring to mind, however, even under the new model: control and security. Sure, any developer can now apply to join the community — and have their information routed through Facebook’s servers. As more data gets through the gate, the social media giant gains more control and simply isn’t under the same kind of obligation to disclose their use of this information as a for-pay ISP.

There’s also the issue of security, since Facebook won’t allow any sites that use SSL or TLS — two key security measures which encrypt data and help deflect malicious attacks. The company claims this is a technical issue but could potentially put free users at risk of having their data compromised, especially if more “secure” online services choose to join the Internet.org movement.

So what’s the final word on a Facebook-powered Internet? The road to Hell is a good example: Zuckerberg may have the best of intentions, but the easy road to online access may burn users’ privacy.

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