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Monday, 29 June 2015

Internet.org: Philanthropy or Just False Advertising?

internet.org
It’s hard not to run across Internet.org in the news of late. Whether it’s a Pakistani man renting a billboard to thank Mark Zuckerberg for the initiative or the EFF coming out with a scathing assessment, Internet.org has generated a lot of debate. If you’re still unclear about what it is or why it’s so controversial, this is a great place to start.

What is Internet.org?

Two thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have internet access. Internet.org solves this problem by providing free mobile internet access to selected websites (telecom networks cover approximately 80% of the population). Any website can apply to be part of the venture through an application provided they fulfill certain requirements. However, only Facebook can decide which application gets rejected or accepted.
Criteria to be part of the Internet.org Platform:
  • Explore the entire internet (so as to give users a taste of the wider Internet and therefore help them see the value of the Internet)
  • Efficiency of data use (so that it would be economical for carriers to allow free access to the websites)
  • Technical specifications: optimized for browsing on a wide range of devices including smartphones and less sophisticated mobile devices, and should not be dependent on Javascript or HTTPS.

Issue 1: Communication Over Internet.org is Not Secure

All internet communication goes through Internet.org’s proxy servers which automatically strip all content that doesn’t follow the guidelines – like VoIP, images larger than 1MB, videos and so on. It also inserts a warning if a user navigates away from this text heavy ‘zero-rated’ portion of the internet. It’s this ‘proxifying’ process that’s of huge concern.
If you’re using a feature phone, there is no support for encrypted HTTPS connections. To work, the data has to be unencrypted when it passes through Internet.org’s proxy servers. That means anyone can read it. From Facebook to the carrier to government agencies, the data could be exposed to anybody and therein lies the crux of the problem.
You cannot provide reasonable security with Internet.org’s current technical setup for feature phone users, who are the actual people that need access. Hence, the system is ripe for abuse. Whether it’s Facebook itself mining the data or being a single point of failure which governments can pressure to get information, there is no expectation of security or privacy.
What could fix this? Facebook says it’s working on a solution for providing encryption on feature phones. If that becomes the default, this concern is mitigated.

Issue 2: Is it Philanthropy or Simply a Very Long Term Investment?

‘Connecting two thirds of the world to the internet’ is a great tagline but let’s be realistic here. Facebook could start the data collection process even before you sign up for the network. Let’s not kid ourselves either by thinking they won’t. They will. After all, they track what sites you visit outside Facebook, they track what apps you use, they even track what friend requests you don’t accept or the status you type but don’t post.
Everyone is rushing towards developing countries because they are the ones who are going to drive demand in the coming years and decades. There is tremendous value in locking down potential customers from the get go and that’s exactly what Internet.org could be: the sole access provider to a completely untapped market.

There is tremendous value in locking down potential customers from the get go and that’s exactly what Internet.org could be: the sole access provider to a completely untapped market.

It’s basically a dream for any advertisement focused company. You control the access, you track the content and you decide what is free and what’s paid. Marketers would kill for the kind of granular data Internet.org could provide if it becomes large enough. With every percentage of population that goes online, the advertising value increases manifold. Are we really supposed to believe Facebook, a publicly traded company beholden to its shareholders, won’t leverage that?
Some internet is better than no internet, I agree. But there has to be a better and more secure solution than letting another corporation take over the controls. And if you do want to do that, don’t call it the ‘Internet initiative’ or ‘philanthropy’ because that’s just posturing.
What could fix this? Bringing digital rights and privacy focused organizations like the EFF on-board who make sure the promise of free and fair internet with a reasonable expectation of privacy and security is delivered.

Misconception: Internet.org Violates Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally. With Internet.org, that wasn’t always the case. Initially, Facebook and the ISPs were going to decide what websites were approved. After some incredible opposition though, Facebook changed its stance and said that any website that followed its guidelines would be welcome to be a part of Internet.org.
Point to Ponder: Should Facebook change the marketing strategy for Internet.org?
In 2015, researchers evaluating how Facebook Zero shapes ICT use in the developing world found that 11% of Indonesians who said they used Facebook also said they did not use the Internet. 65% of Nigerians, and 61% of Indonesians agree with the statement that “Facebook is the Internet” compared with only 5% in the US.
The reversal is great but we need to be very observant. Google had a monopoly on search and they abused it to promote their own services and that of their top ad spenders at the cost of everyone else. It would be easy for Facebook to change the guidelines to stifle competition. So we need to ensure that Internet.org has a transparent process that provides everyone a fair chance to be a part of it. That includes websites that might compete against Facebook.

And Here’s Why All These Concerns Might be Irrelevant:

Most people, including myself, are very opinionated about Internet.org. That’s because we are worried about things like security, privacy and net neutrality (add corporations taking over the world to that list as well). But does the intended audience of Internet.org really care for any of that? The goat herder in Cambodia, the rice farmer in rural Pakistan or the laborer in Malawi?
There is zero doubt in my mind that if Internet.org remains a fair platform and doesn’t succumb to corporate greed, it could become one of the most important initiatives for the developing world. I don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg but I do appreciate what he is trying to do. After all, who has done anything yet for connecting the rest of the world to the internet? It’s a flawed initiative, yes, but we should try to work out the kinks in a constructive manner rather than trying to derail it completely.
Remember, while we’re busy debating, more than 4 billion people in the world aren’t connected to the internet. Deciding exactly what we cede in order to provide them access is the multi-billion dollar question.
So far, activists everywhere have deemed security and privacy too much of a trade off. What do you think? Is Internet.org’s global internet access worth the associated risks? Let us know in the comments below!

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