Facebook's Internet.org charity has come under increased criticism of late but that hasn't stopped its expansion plans. On Friday Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that Internet.org app was now available in Indonesia, a country with a population of 250 million.
Developed in partnership with local mobile phone carrier Indosat, the local version of the Internet.org app gives Indonesians free access to a limited number of websites and services, including Facebook (of course). The service is pitched as providing free access to the internet, but as you can see from the following list that is far from true:
- BabyCenter & Mama
- Girl Effect
- Penuntun Hidup Sehat
Compared to the millions of sites available online, that's a damned short list. But on the plus side the list does include Wikipedia, Wattpad, and Ask.com, so users will actually be better informed than if they had no access at all.
One could argue that something is always better than nothing, but that argument doesn't carry nearly as much water now as it did when Internet.org was first announced in late 2013.
Over the past few weeks Internet.org has been the subject of a heated debate in India. Its critics have expressed concerns with how Internet.org violates the principles of net neutrality on a fundamental level. A couple local partners have even pulled out of the program in India, leading Zuckerberg to respond in an editorial published by the Hindustan Times.
We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don't discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It's an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it.
Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles - net neutrality and universal connectivity - can and must coexist.
To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some services for free. If you can't afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all.
Those are pretty words, but he doesn't actually explain why Internet.org has to go against net neutrality. Assuming that there is a valid reason and not something nefarious, it probably has to do with how the charity is funded.
I don't have details on Internet.org but I do have info on a related service. Airtel, Internet.org's partner in India offers a similar free but limited internet service which is funded by the subsidy fees which app developers and web services pay in order to get their app or service in front of the user.
This is what is known as a "Zero Rating" service, although it has also been described as poor internet for poor people.
So tell me, do you think this type of service is better than nothing?
I think it can be, but I won't make that claim about Internet.org until I know more about its internal processes. For example, its critics complain about the opaque process Facebook uses to choose local partners. To name one example, Wattpad is a partner in Kenya and Indonesia, but not in India. Why is that?
Until Facebook opens up and explains how Internet.org works, until we get to see how the sausage is made, the criticism will only increase.
And not just the criticism. The opposition will continue to grow until the point that it derails further expansion.
If Internet.org really is as altruistic as Zuckerberg claims, let's hope that the charity finds a way to make peace with its critics, possibly by reforming its methods, before it's too late.