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Internet.org, between Promises and Suspicion: The Most Controversial Aspects of the Facebook Project

“The majority of civil society does not support the project. Over 60 digital rights organizations from around the world signed an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg. In it, they voiced their concern that Internet.org violates the principle of net neutrality, threatens freedom of expression, and goes against equal opportunities, security, privacy, and innovation.”

Mariela Baladron*/ July 2015

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According to data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), in 2015 there are still 4 billion people in developing countries who do not have an Internet connection. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated that the main barrier to decreasing this digital divide is the cost of data plans given that Smartphones are increasingly accessible and 85% of the population lives in areas with mobile connectivity. This led him to launch the initiative Internet.org, an application that allows users to access a limited number of Websites from cell phones for a limited amount of time free of charge. The implementation of Internet.org in each country requires an agreement that brings two other players into the mix: the government and a mobile phone provider.

Currently, the list of countries in which Internet.org has been implemented includes Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Colombia, Ghana, India, the Philippines, Guatemala, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Panama. Progress has been made in countries such as Mexico and Peru as well.

The Role of Companies and Social Organizations

Zuckerberg’s promise claims to advance an altruistic goal of granting billions of people who do not currently have a connection access to the Internet, which will promote development and decrease poverty. However, when he pitches the project to mobile phone companies, his discourse regarding Internet.org changes radically. He tells these companies that traffic will increase through use of applications such as Facebook and Whatsapp (both of which he owns) and that new clients live in developing countries where people are using their cellular data for the first time. In regard to the commercial aspect of the project, Mario Zanotti, Executive Vice President of Millicom for Latin America, states that the number of clients who use data in Paraguay increased 30% following the creation of the alliance with Internet.org, and that smartphone sales increased tenfold.

Another element that raises suspicion regarding the true goals of the project is the list of founding partners, namely, mobile and wireless technology companies (Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera, Samsung, Nokia, and Qualcomm). Given that this is an initiative to extend Internet connectivity and reduce the digital divide, one would have hoped that it would have greater and more diverse sources of support including social organizations that work in the field or in the areas where the target market lives. At present, the majority of civil society does not support the project. Over 60 digital rights organizations from around the world signed an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg. In it, they voiced their concern that Internet.org violates the principle of net neutrality, threatens freedom of expression, and goes against equal opportunities, security, privacy, and innovation.

Net Neutrality at Risk

Another discussion that Internet.org inspired globally is related to its impact on net neutrality, a principle that proposes that all Internet providers and governments must treat Internet traffic equally, without blocking or interfering with its contents, platforms or the protocols involved.

Some countries have already regulated Zero Rating promotions (which offer free navigation for specific applications) and have ruled that they are discriminatory and limit competition. They also question the idea that users should be required to pay in order to access an external link (as is also the case with Internet.org).

In Latin America, Chile is the only country that has adopted a resolution regarding this issue. The Office of the Undersecretary of Telecommunications published Circular No. 40 in April 2014 in which it establishes that telecommunications companies are prohibited from offering free use of specific social networking applications because this works against other similar applications and jeopardizes net neutrality. In other words, a priori, Internet.org would not be legal in Chile.

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg defends his project, stating that it does not block or limit other services or create fast lanes and that his company will never prevent people from accessing other services. The question is whether there could be exceptions in regard to net neutrality when the initiative is in the public interest. Above and beyond the questions that Internet.org raises in regard to being recognized as such an initiative, other projects such as Wikipedia Zero have led to this debate. Some argue that the system should identify specific criteria that must be met. For example, the service could be available for any user without a commercial service and would be subject to periodic reviews and controls. However, there is no unanimity regarding the validity of accepting exceptions to net neutrality for initiatives that propose solutions restricted to an issue that has multiple aspects, as is the case with the digital divide.

Internet for the Poorest of the Poor

The official announcement regarding the launch of Internet.org in Colombia by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology celebrates the agreement reached with Facebook to “bring free Internet to the poorest members of society.” This statement is odd and questionable for two reasons. On the one hand, it reinforces the rhetoric of Facebook, which looks to equate Internet.org with the Internet starting with its very name. This is very problematic in and of itself, as the “poorest” would be Facebook natives, which limits their perception and use of the Internet and leads them to value that social network even more as an intermediary for other media outlets and services. It also favors one company in particular, which works against the efforts that the government should be making to increase competition and innovation. These and other aspects of the project led to criticism and questions in Colombia.

Internet.org only grants access to some applications and offers restricted navigation. One cannot see photos or videos or use the Facebook messenger service, for example. It also fails to recognize the many aspects that have to go into efforts to reduce the digital divide, including infrastructure development, access to devices, and the promotion of digital capacities that are necessary for promoting a differential impact in users. These concerns have been publicly shared and discussed (see here, here, and here). Internet.org is far from being the Internet. And its main beneficiaries do not seem to be the poorest of the poor.

* The author holds a degree in the Communication Sciences and teaches and conducts research on communication and right to information policy at the Universidad de Buenos Aires School of Social Sciences.

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