Not everyone is a fan of Internet.org, Facebook’s non-profit aiming to bring internet access to “the most disadvantaged” parts of the world.
Since its February rollout in India, several big companies from that country, including a giant media firm and a major travel portal, have withdrawn from the service, claiming it conflicts with the spirit of net neutrality.
According to the BBC, “the issue has certainly galvanised the Indian public — more than 800,000 people have sent emails to India’s telecom regulator demanding a free and fair internet.”
Responding to the backlash in India, Zuckerberg defended Internet.org in an article for the Hindustan Times, and later published the same text in a Facebook post. He says “net neutrality and universal connectivity must co-exist.”
Net neutrality is the idea that all data should be treated equally and service providers shouldn’t limit access to certain services over others. But it helps to understand this in the context of Internet.org.
Here’s how Internet.org works: The non-profit makes a free mobile app that’s available in parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, thanks to partnerships with cellular carriers in those countries.
The app is basically a bundle of a few dozen major web services like Facebook, Wikipedia, ESPN, BBC News, and others, but the app itself doesn’t provide access to the full internet.
So, unless your phone has a browser and a data plan, you can only use the free selection of applications Facebook provides you.
Facebook hasn’t explained how it selects the apps and services to include in Internet.org: Why, for example, does it offer Bing Search but not Google? Why is YouTube not included, despite its educational value? Customers don’t have answers to these questions, which partially explains the backlash.
Naveen Patnaik, the Chief Minister of the eastern Indian state of Odisha, said in a letter to Indian regulators (via Quartz): “While the underprivileged deserve much more than what is available, nobody should decide what exactly are their requirements. If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their rights to choose what they think is best for them.”
Some argue that the underlying problem with this particular structure — offering a bundle of select apps instead of the complete internet — boils down to a policy called “zero rating.” It means customers don’t pay for the data they use when they access a service or application; rather, the operator running that service or app pays for that data.
This toll-free policy can give an unfair advantage to big websites like Facebook and ESPN, which can afford to pay the data bills for thousands of customers, while leaving little room for smaller independent operations.
The Hindustan Times’ Nikhil Pahwa wrote a scathing response to Zuckerberg’s editorial on Thursday. He cited Stanford Law School professor Barbara van Schewick, who said “zero-rating is the next big threat to innovation and free speech online. It distorts competition, interferes with user choice. And that’s exactly what network neutrality is designed to protect.”
Neither Internet.org, Airtel Zero nor any other major zero rating platform gives the choice to the consumer. Instead, the decisions are made by big telcos working in partnership with large Internet companies. Smaller firms are forced to commercially lobby and sign up in order to prevent their competitors from being able to deal in and crush them.
This reduces entrepreneurship and local Internet innovation by placing firms in a situation where their local consumers are all locked in to a limited platform under the control of a few giants. Effectively Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” initiative will be reduced to a “Taxed in India” one, with the “tax” being collected by gatekeepers like Facebook and Airtel. This is why regulators in Chile, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Canada have prohibited zero-rating, while their counterparts in Germany, Austria and Norway have publicly stated that zero-rating violates network neutrality.
In defence of Internet.org, Zuckerberg says “if someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.” While that may be true, offering a few free applications hand-picked by Facebook might not make “a free and open internet” that everyone can agree with.
Facebook currently works with local operators to deliver Internet.org, but the company is researching novel ways to beam internet access via drones and satellites, which may eventually help it deliver internet to people without relying on “zero rating.”
We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment, and will update this story accordingly when necessary.
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