‘Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative bringing together technology leaders, non-profits and local communities to connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have Internet access.’
A new App developed between social networking service Facebook and several mobile phone companies including Ericsson, Samsung and Nokia was launch in 2013 to provide ‘free’ Internet access to ‘developing’ countries that are coping with expensive service plans, limited power sources and networks that cannot support large amounts of data. The app is now available in Ghana, Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania, and only until recently, India.
India has pulled out from the initiative on the grounds that the principle of ‘net neutrality’ could be breached. Net neutrality is the leading principle of the open Internet where nobody owns the flow of information. The business initiative lead by Internet.org will effectively amount to ownership of the internet through control of the market forces (i.e., large telecom companies) that makes the information available, as well as the information that is available (i.e., publishers and content providers). The bill for the free access will be picked up by the company that the information provided relates to. Inevitably, this will favour those with deeper pockets. By creating the web for two thirds of the world’s population that currently does not have Internet access, the business initiative will effectively own two thirds of the world’s Internet. What will become of net neutrality? What are the implications of the net no longer being neutral?
In practical terms, Internet.org users will have to purchase a smart phone to be able to access the web services available for free. Importantly, not all sites are free and the user will receive a warning if they stray onto sites that apply charges. Which sites are available and which are not will depend on app developers to be able to afford paying data charges. Consequently, start-up developers with small pockets could be at commercial disadvantage.
Mr Zuckerberg defended Internet.org by declaring: ‘Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected […] We will never prevent people accessing other services’. Of course, Internet.org will not be the agent preventing Internet access, but a situation of extreme poverty. Again the rich will be able to navigate freely and the poor will be stuck with free Facebook and a set of health, weather, employment and local information services.
However, is Internet.org better than nothing? In the short term, getting a little bit of internet is better than getting none at all, but what about the long term implications? Might it delay or stop the push for delivering proper internet infrastructure to the poor?