Internet.org, an initiative to provide free internet access around the world led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is coming under a fresh round of heavy criticism, even after changes were announced to address net neutrality concerns since the program launched in India last February.
On Monday, 65 advocacy groups wrote an open letter to the 31-year-old CEO denouncing the project as “threatening freedom of expression,” Wired reports.
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a pressure group in the United States, has also slammed it as “not neutral, not secure, and not the internet.”
The attack comes just weeks after Zuckerberg was forced to defend Internet.org against critics who argued that people using the program would only be allowed to use online services selected by Facebook.
Zuckerberg ultimately made changes so that people have more of a free choice for what they can browse online, even though he believes critics are putting the “intellectual purity of technology above people’s needs.”
What is Internet.org?
Internet.org is an effort to bring the internet to the developing world. It allows users in developing countries to access certain websites for free — turning Facebook and Internet.org into de facto gatekeepers of the net, dictating what people can and can’t access online.
Partners include Samsung, Nokia, Opera, and Ericsson. In the last several months, however, multiple local partners have pulled out of the scheme over net neutrality concerns.
Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally.
A Hindustan Times editorial decried Internet.org as “an ambitious project to confuse hundreds of millions of emerging market users into thinking that Facebook and the internet are one and the same.” Seven-hundred-thousand people also signed a petition aimed at India’s telecom regulator in support of net neutrality.
In response to this, Internet.org opened its doors to developers so that any company can build an app for Facebook’s free internet program. But there are still restrictions. Namely, Facebook still gets to approve the app.
“A telco that doesn’t want to offer a specific free service on the Internet.org app doesn’t necessarily have to,” Business Insider’s Cale Guthrie Weissman notes.
The changes aren’t enough
In an open letter to Zuckerberg posted on Monday, 65 organisations from 31 countries expressed “common concern about the launch and expansion of Facebook’s Internet.org platform and its implications for the open Internet around the world.”
The groups adds: “The project acts as a ‘walled garden’ in which some services are favoured over others — again, a violation of net neutrality.”
By offering some internet services but not others — even though developers can now produce their own services on the platform — Internet.org violates net neutrality, they argue.
The also allege that the program risks freedom of expression by putting Facebook in the position “whereby governments could apply pressure to block certain content, or even, if users must log in for access, block individual users. Facebook would find itself mediating the real surveillance and censorship threats to politically active users in restrictive environments.”
US pressure group EFF also slammed the initiative for “[endangering] people’s privacy and security… because the technical security of Internet.org prevents some users from accessing services over encrypted HTTPS connections.” This potentially puts users’ sensitive data at risk.
In a comment on Facebook, Zuckerberg says that HTTPS will come “soon,” but the company “still needs to do some work to make this work on all phones and browsers.”
Zuckerberg thinks Facebook and Internet.org can “coexist”
On April 17, Mark Zuckerberg tried to address some of the criticisms on his Facebook profile. “Some people have criticised the concept of zero-rating that allows Internet.org to deliver free basic internet services, saying that offering some services for free goes against the spirit of net neutrality,” he wrote, adding that he “strongly” disagrees with this assessment.
“Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected,” the CEO wrote. “These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist. To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.
He added: “Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes — and it never will.”
When reached for comment, Facebook pointed Business Insider to a page on Internet.org’s website about “myths and facts.” It says that rather than “trying to use Internet.org to reinforce [the] impression” that Facebook is the entire internet, the initiative “introduces people to the value of the entire internet through a set of free basic services that total over 100 globally. Giving people a list that features a broader set of services is important for helping people experience the value of other online services, like women’s health information and education services.”