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Internet.org: What is it?

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Launched in 2013 by Facebook, Internet.org aims to bring Internet access to a billion people in developing countries by providing free access to a set of pre-approved websites to people who might not otherwise be able to afford to access the Internet.

How it works

Very simply, Internet.org allows users with limited data plans to access a pre-approved suite of sites and apps for free using their phones. Any webmaster can submit their website to the Internet.org team for approval; they will then review the site, and decide if it will form part of the program. The guidelines for approval don’t impose any restrictions on the type of content a site can carry, but they do impose some technical limitations. These limitations are intended to make sure that the site will work both on inexpensive feature phones and on smartphones, and that they aren’t so data-heavy that they will overburden mobile networks.

All approved sites will then be routed through the Internet.org server, which will strip out content like large images, videos, VoIP and Flash. Content channeled through this server will be ‘zero rated’ by participating mobile phone networks, meaning data will be sent to the user for free, with no data charges. If a user tries to leave the portal, a warning will pop up—this is to stop people unknowingly incurring large data charges.

Prior to its launch, Mark Zuckerberg, in a paper titled Is Connectivity a Human Right? noted some interesting statistics on global internet access to make his case for the launch of Internet.org. He noted:

  • Only a third of people around the globe have internet access
  • In many countries, the cost of a data plan is much more expensive than the price of a smartphone.
  • Data charges account for a large chunk of the cost of packages offered by operators; Zuckerberg gives the example of an iPhone with a two-year data plan costing $2,000, of which only $500-$600 is the cost of the phone. This means that much of the ‘connectivity problem’ is down to access to data, rather than access to hardware (smartphones or feature phones).

While the aim of breaking down the digital divide is a laudable one, and internet access for people in developing countries is something that needs to be rolled out as soon as possible, many have questioned if Facebook’s initiative is the best way to do this; with some going further and saying that it is actively harmful.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation, for example cautioned that Internet.org ‘could end up becoming a ghetto for poor users instead of a stepping stone to the larger Internet.’

This is because Internet.org doesn’t give users access to the internet as such, but rather to a suite of websites that Facebook has approved.

Controversy

Because all information accessed via the Internet.org system will have to go through Internet.org’s servers, and because these are controlled by one entity (Facebook) there are serious concerns that everyone from governments to corporations to lobby groups will seek to have certain sites blocked. Because there is only one gatekeeper (Facebook) Internet.org’s services would be much easier to censor than the internet at large.

There are also security concerns – the system has no way to implement HTTPS such that data being sent from the server to feature-phones is encrypted. The EFF points out that information sent or received by users through the Internet.org platform could thus in theory be accessed by intelligence services, police, or anyone else, exposing users to potential harm. Without HTTPS, things like online banking, shopping, even messaging, are potentially dangerous.

When Internet.org launched in India earlier this year it caused a storm of controversy, with many companies and interest groups arguing that it violated net neutrality principles. Firms which had previously signed up, including Newshunt, Cleartrip, Flipkart and NDTV pulled out of the scheme in the face of a blizzard of complaints. In the face of the storm, Facebook did open up the platform to a wider group of developers than that originally mooted, but concerns about net neutrality have not gone away. Critics in India have pointed out that Internet.org is only available on the Reliance network, and say that this is inequitable.

The big question mark hanging over Internet.org is the potential, as the EFF points out, to create a ghettoized internet, that is far from the free and open system we have become accustomed to.

Nobody can argue that making connectivity available to more people is a bad thing. But if only a select group of companies stand to benefit, and if this initiative means that the infrastructural investment needed to make real, full internet access available to people in developing countries isn’t made, then the jury is still out whether Internet.org is a good thing or a bad one.

Main image: Internet.org