The idea sounds great—provide Internet access for the millions of people in developing areas that don’t have it. But in the process of putting that knowledge at the fingertips of that underserved community, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org has drawn a bright line between the haves and have-nots.
Zuckerberg’s plan, developed with manufacturers such as Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm and Samsung, allows free access via mobile phones in developing areas only to certain parts of the Internet. Surprise—Facebook is one of the applications able to be reached by way of the Internet.org app. Wikipedia is also available as are weather and a few other sites. But if you want to go to a site not on the app, you must either pay a fee or you’re out of luck.
Latin American leaders, such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, have applauded the Internet.org strategy, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). But others, including Carolina Botero, executive director of the Karisma Foundation in Bogotá, have reservations. Karisma supports the positive use of technology as it pertains to human rights. Botero said: “We have serious concerns that Internet.org is presented as a public policy strategy for universal access to the Internet. This initiative compromises everyone’s rights and blurs the government’s obligation to reduce the digital divide for its citizens for compromised access to certain applications. No matter how interesting they are, these services are associated with a commercial interest of a multinational which the state is directly supporting.”
Zuckerberg claims that because Internet.org doesn’t specifically block sites or charge sites more to run faster, the app conforms with net neutrality principles. But more businesses are starting to see it the other way and are opting out of the program, among them a group of Indian publishers.
“We support net neutrality because it creates a fair, level playing field for all companies—big and small—to produce the best service and offer it to consumers,” The Times Group, one of the publishers that withdrew from Internet.org, said in a statement. Other Indian companies to opt out of Internet.org are travel website Cleartrip and information site Newshunt. “What started off with providing a simple search service has us now concerned with influencing customer decision-making by forcing options on them, something that is against our core DNA,” Cleartrip said in a statement, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“The problem runs deeper than simply which sites to which poor users should have subsidized access,” wrote EFF’s David Boagado and Katitza Rodriguez. “It lies in the very concept that Facebook and its corporate partners, or governments, should be able to privilege one service or site above another. Despite the good intentions of Facebook and the handful of allied companies, Internet.org effectively leaves its users without a real Internet in the [Latin American] region.”
The result is “having access to only a sliver of what is supposed to be the worldwide web,” wrote Issie Lapowsky at Wired. “As we’ve said before, this creates ‘an Internet for poor people.’”
Zuckerberg’s response, basically, is that half a loaf is better than none. “Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity,” he wrote April 17 in a Facebook post. “Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected.” -Steve Straehley