The idea sounds flat-out utopian: Free internet! For everyone! Starting in the least-connected countries! Of course, there's a catch: Facebook's Internet.org is helping people get online, but their online experience is then controlled by Facebook.
Debate over how much Facebook's marquee corporate responsibility crusade is tempered by plans to become a global on-ramp for all communication has been brewing for a while, but now a group of net neutrality advocates, privacy experts, media non-profits, and telecom companies are calling out some specific reasons why Internet.org could be a disastrous money grab in an open letter. Here are some of the most troubling aspects of Facebook's would-be global charity initiative.
Instead of giving people access to the internet, it gives them access to Facebook's version of the internet
Facebook touts Internet.org as an empowering salvo for people starved for the benefits that come along with digital connection. But it's a salvo with big limits. (Wired's Josh Levy called it "Facebooknet" rather than the actual internet.)
Mark Zuckerberg readily admits that it'd be way too expensive to actually give everyone free internet, and what the initiative does in reality is give people access to Facebook and select partners.
It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services.
People who rely on Internet.org for the internet will see a narrow, Facebook-controlled slice of the internet. Supporters, including Zuckerberg, argue that some free internet access is better than none. But there's legitimate concern that allowing a major US multinational corporation to train people to use its tailored version of the internet will engender a kind of digital neocolonialism that will hurt domestic innovation and do more to lock people into using Facebook and its affiliate services than anything else.
The name is misleading
"Internet.org" makes it sound like an initiative that helps deliver the internet to people who don't have access rather than a service that helps deliver Facebook and its approved partners to people who don't have access.
Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full Internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of Internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs. In its present conception,
Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.
Facebook really should have just called the initiative Facebook.org. Of course, it'd still enrage people who care about net neutrality and people who don't want the global poor to have their internet experience filtered through a single company, but at least it'd be accurate.
It could make Facebook play de facto government censor
If Facebook is the only affordable option people have to log on, it could become a default "centralised hub" for information, which means it would be the only door to information governments would need to lock to keep people in the dark.
Facebook appears to be putting itself in a position whereby governments could apply pressure to block certain content, or even, if users must log in for access, block individual users. Facebook would find itself mediating the real surveillance and censorship threats to politically active users in restrictive environments.
It's a security mess
Internet.org doesn't use encryption. No HTTPS encryption, no TLS (Transport Layer Security), no SSL (Secure Socket Layer). None of its participating services can use these security measures, either.
Oh and it's a privacy mess too
Not only does Internet.org's lax security make it easier for thieves and snoops to spy on users, but Internet.org requires that its partners allow for data tracking.
Helping people gain access to information is a noble goal, but Internet.org is set up like a pioneer program to hook a new subset of users into Facebook fandom.
No matter how many times Mark Zuckerberg stares into a camera and insists this is an altruistic cause, this initiative will remain dubious unless it can be more neatly cleaved from Facebook's efforts to groom new users and capture new markets.
Image via AccessNow.org