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Intelligent Machines

Facebook’s Internet.Org Hits Global Flak

Groups in Indonesia, Colombia, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere join Indian counterparts in criticizing Internet.org’s practices.

The Internet is still unavailable to four billion people.

In January Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg clinched the first Latin American customer for Internet.org, which lets people use certain websites and apps without incurring data charges. Standing with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, he announced that the mobile carrier Tigo would provide “free basic services” through the app, which Zuckerberg argues is how the world’s poorest should get online.

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, wears a hoodie adorned with the Facebook logo and Brazil’s flag, given to her by Mark Zuckerberg at a conference last month in Panama. She holds the power to allow or block Internet.org in Brazil.

Already, though, Internet.org is running into trouble in Colombia because of criticisms that are being echoed in many other countries. The opposition is adding up to a strong challenge to Zuckerberg’s vision of using Facebook as a central part of a strategy to introduce the Web to Internet newcomers.

Today 60 people from digital-rights groups in 28 countries or regions around the world signed a joint letter to Zuckerberg criticizing many of Internet.org’s practices on fairness, privacy, and security grounds. Among them are the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation, and similar groups in Brazil, Indonesia, Uganda, and Cameroon.

Also on the list is the Karisma Foundation, a digital-rights group based in Bogotá. It points out that Tigo is telling customers it will discontinue the free app on May 31. Tigo recently decided to offer a 60-day free trial of Facebook, which users are confusing with the Internet.org app that gives free trials to multiple services, says Carolina Botero, Karisma’s president. “We have done some informal inquiries in the neighborhoods and found that people don’t realize they are only on Facebook—not on the Internet,” she says. Colombia’s government is channeling government information through Facebook’s app rather than making it available directly, she adds. “This was presented as a project meant to be an important universalization of the Internet,” she says. “But contrary to transparency principles, we have no information on the contract with Tigo, or how it came about. It’s only a few apps which they choose—and we don’t even know why or how.” 

The new controversy comes after a recent furor in which more than a million people signed a petition asking India’s telecom authority to ban services that violate the open-access principle known as net neutrality (see “Indian Companies Turn Against Facebook’s Scheme for Broader Internet Access”). “It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden where the world’s poorest people can only access a limited set of insecure websites and services,” the letter published today says. “In its present conception, Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.”

The opposition isn’t to Facebook per se. The main Facebook app or website is very popular among people who can afford data plans. (After the United States, Facebook’s next-largest user bases are in India, Indonesia, and Brazil.) Rather, it is to Internet.org specifically.

The free system works like this: Users download the Internet.org app. Through it, they get a simple version of Facebook plus access to a collection of other apps—often stripped-down websites for weather, health, and jobs—that pass through a Facebook approval process. The local telecom company foots the bill, a process known as “zero rating.”

That is a business model Zuckerberg has explained as “free service with upsells.” In other words, get people interested with the free stuff, then charge them when they use more data—for example, if they want to download a photo that someone posted on Facebook. Zuckerberg frames the idea altruistically. “If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all,” he wrote recently.

A growing number of opponents argue that Facebook’s effort will create a de facto two-tier Internet—one tier curated by Facebook, and the other open to everything, for anyone who can afford it. But the joint letter also addresses issues of privacy and security. The groups worry that Facebook will make it easy for state-run telecoms to monitor users through this centralized system—and that the app could in some cases enable countries to spy on and repress their citizens. Adding to the concerns, Facebook is not supporting apps that use encryption.

A Facebook spokesman said in an e-mail this week that Facebook “doesn’t share user-level navigation information” with its partners or store it at all beyond 90 days. Meanwhile, many feature phones can’t handle encryption; Facebook says it is working fast to overcome this problem but did not offer a time line. (As for Colombia, the Facebook spokesman said the company was looking into Tigo’s May 31 deadline for the Internet.org app, and said that Tigo’s 60-day free Facebook offering has “nothing to do with Internet.org” even though the latter also includes free Facebook. Tigo has not responded to requests for comment.)

Facebook keeps adding more deals with carriers; Zuckerberg said in a post Wednesday that a new deal in Malawi brings the number of people with access to free Internet services through the app to a billion, at least in theory. (The number of people who have actually downloaded and used the app is nine million, according to Facebook.)

Facebook did not invent the concept of zero rating, which is in use in various ways around the world (see “Around the World, Net Neutrality Is Not a Reality”). But whether a Facebook-curated scheme is the best way to provide access is an open question. “It would be extremely dangerous if governments weigh in to favor one company or commercial model for expanding access,” says Carolina Rossini, a Brazilian lawyer who is vice president for international policy at Public Knowledge, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Other models for free access are emerging. One of them is from Jana, a Boston startup, which is offering a service through carriers in 15 countries (see “Facebook’s Controversial Free App Plan Gets Competition”). Under that scheme, an app developer can underwrite a user’s cost of both downloading and using an app; users get a bonus of extra data to use for anything.

Many countries, like Brazil, have enacted laws that make strong commitments to universal access and support net neutrality, the principle that no set of applications should be favored over any other. Some countries, like Chile, expressly ban zero rating. But in most cases, the legal picture is ambiguous. Brazil, for example, has a strong universal-access law called the Marco Civil. Clearing up whether Facebook can operate there will require a stroke of the presidential pen asserting it one way or another.

No surprise then, that at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last month, Zuckerberg gave the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, a hoodie adorned with Facebook’s logo and Brazil’s flag. The surprise, Rossini said, was that Rousseff gamely put it on and smiled for the press.

This story was updated on May 18, 2015, to clarify the description of Internet.org.

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