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Internet.org—Criticism and Myths

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On the face of it, the Internet.org guidelines mostly make sense for anyone striving to build a free and mobile-friendly Internet. So why is there a global backlash?

Internet.org and the universality and decentralization foundations of the web

To try to put things in context we can remind ourselves what Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, had to say about universality of the web [pdf]:

The primary design principle underlying the Web’s usefulness and growth is universality. When you make a link, you can link to anything. That means people must be able to put anything on the Web, no matter what computer they have, software they use or human language they speak and regardless of whether they have a wired or wireless Internet connection. The Web should be usable by people with disabilities. It must work with any form of information, be it a document or a point of data, and information of any quality—from a silly tweet to a scholarly paper. And it should be accessible from any kind of hardware that can connect to the Internet: stationary or mobile, small screen or large.

Decentralization is also mentioned by Tim Berners-Lee as key ingredient of the web:

Decentralization is another important design feature. You do not have to get approval from any central authority to add a page or make a link.

The Internet.org platform has been ‘opened’ up since the global criticism, although it’s still not truly open, or universal. There are technical guidelines, but Facebook is the sole arbiter in respect of approving sites. So users of the service will not be able to access all sites equally. Yes, users can access any site they want outside of Internet.org, but only if they can afford it. And it’s clear that the Internet.org proposition violates decentralization too, because of its approval process and proxy setup.

Groups around the world have been crying foul, and 67 rights groups from all around the world have penned an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, voicing their concerns:

[W]e are deeply concerned that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full Internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of Internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs. In its present conception, Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation

Facebook’s responses and guidelines have been underwhelming at best, and arguably contradictory to the project. First, one of the guidelines is that Internet.org sites should encourage exploration of the entire Internet. This is of course impossible for most of the people at whom Internet.org is aimed, as they will have to pay to explore any of the Internet hosted outside of Internet.org, which is most of the Internet.

Facebook also claims that the project will encourage new users to start to pay for wider services on the Internet:

We are convinced that as more and more people gain access to the Internet, they will see the benefits and want to use even more services. We believe this so strongly that we have worked with operators to offer basic services to people at no charge, convinced that new users will quickly want to move beyond basic services and pay for more diverse, valuable services.

Once again, this seems contradictory. Isn’t Internet.org aimed at some of the poorest people in the world?