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Facebook’s free internet project has come under attack by critics

Founded in late 2013, internet.org is a partnership between Facebook and six companies (Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm) which allows people from less economically developed countries to experience the internet for free– in many cases the only way they can experience it at all.

The catch? There are significant limitations to the websites available through the service. Users can only access sites pre-approved by Facebook itself. Which is where the revolutionary initiative has been heavily scrutinized, after the app for the service was rebooted earlier this week.

The Problem

As utilitarian and heroic as providing the world with free internet sounds, many detractors argue that this project “violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy, and innovation” as outlined in this open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. This is no small matter as the open letter has been backed by over 65 corporations in 31 different countries.

This is because of the inherent political minefield that arisesd when one company can control the flow of information given to a populace. After all, only Governments are allowed to do that am I right? Yes we’re looking at you Putin.

Worries arise that Facebook will be able to generate demand and interest in whatever they want; leaving users in the dark about alternatives and all but destroying net neutrality.

Net neutrality is a key value of our global internet, something most agree should be here to stay. Access now in an earlier blog post have added;

“Net Neutrality requires that the Internet be maintained as an open platform on which network providers treat all content, applications, and services equally, without discrimination. An important precept of Net Neutrality is that everyone should be able to innovate without permission from any entity.”

This is however not what the App and website currently do. Instead only a small portion of the internet is available and the project offers services from Facebook and select Facebook partners.

This raises a very big red flag as “People accessing only applications pre-approved by Facebook aren’t experiencing the full breadth of the open Internet, and can be deprived of options to explore opportunities for educational, commercial, cultural, and social development. Facebook is now in the position of deciding winners and losers through Free Basics.” Access now says.

Critics do welcome some of the news with the project however; as Zuckerberg changes the name of the internet.org app after concerns of how misleading the original name is. Since the internet in its entirety is far from on offer here. Now called ‘Free Basics‘, the new improvements have now opened the door to more developers and web services. All of which has appeased many critics, but many are still pushing for more to be done to protect net neutrality.

Facebook’s side of things

The Facebook vice president Chris Daniels, who currently runs the internet.org project, aims to also provide internet access to areas totally cut off from cellular signal via ‘flying drones and satellites’. He goes on to say that whilst he respects the opinions of the critics, he is ‘bemused by their latest complaints’.

“We listened to the critics and we made a bunch of thoughtful improvements. It’s pretty hard to understand how a reasonable person would be against the program at this point. Internet.org is open to all developers. No content is blocked. It is giving people a choice of the applications they can use,” he says. “I was a little confounded by the reaction.”

What happens next

The name-change has definitely helped relieve some of the pressure felt by Facebook and the vice president, but a lot more is still to be done in the redesigning of the program. Josh Levy, a main contributor to the Access Now critque adds “Changing the name of the program doesn’t change the actual program… But it does clear up the confusion, which I think was fairly widespread, about the mission and goal of the program.”

The program still has substandard encryption protocol, specifically at network end-points, creating the very real risk of cyber crimes and fraud as a result.

For now the program will remain largely unchanged; brushing off the idea of providing full internet access but with very small data caps to keep the expenses paid by Facebook.  As Daniels says the project is more about giving people a taste of what the internet can do for them; not the full three courses. Adding “The thing to do to get those people online is to show make them aware of the type of information and services that being online can do for the lives. That is the purpose of Free Basic.”

Mark Zuckerberg will be giving two speeches at the United Nations in New York today. He will then be back at Facebook headquarters in Northern California tomorrow; where a Q&A with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will take place.

About Kyran Wilson

Kyran Wilson
Based in London, Kyran Wilson maintains a strong interest in scientific and technological news. In his free time, he enjoys political/philosophical discussion, cinema, mathematics and gaming.