Mark Zuckerberg has his eye on the rest of the world.
This week, Facebook and its conspicuous founder rebooted the free app that provides (some) online access from mobile phones in 19 countries across the globe, dropping its old Internet.org moniker in the face of various complaints and rebranding it as “Free Basics by Facebook.” On Saturday, at the United Nations in New York, Zuckerberg will give two speeches on the importance of online communications in the developing world. And on Sunday, back at Facebook headquarters in Northern California, he’ll host a town-hall-style Q&A with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. No doubt, the Internet will be the main topic of conversation.
Zuckerberg is intent on bringing Internet access to all those people across the globe who don’t already have it. That’s apparent in so much that he and Facebook are up to this week. But Facebook is also playing a role in determining what services are accessible through its app, and that’s what sparked complaints from public advocates and online publishers. Though the rebranding—and a few other changes—have been welcomed, some are still raising concerns as Zuckerberg takes his global mission from California to New York and back again.
‘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.’ Chris Daniels, Facebook
In the wake the Internet.org reboot, the global public advocate Access Now applauded the app’s new name and other changes to the service. But it also complained that the app still violates the idea of net neutrality—the concern at the heart of an open letter to Zuckerberg, signed by more than 65 advocacy organizations in 31 countries, that Access Now published this past May. “There are things that are good,” says Josh Levy, who has spearheaded the complaints from Access Now and others, “and there are things that are unchanged.”
Chris Daniels, the Facebook vice president in charge of the larger Internet.org project, which also seeks to provide internet access to developing areas via flying drones and satellites, says the company respects its critics. But he says he’s 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.”
Not the Whole Internet
The issue is that Facebook’s free Android app—and the free website that lets you do something similar from phones that don’t run the Android operating system—offer access to only a portion of the Internet. It offers services from Facebook and select Facebook partners.
Facebook works with various wireless carriers to get the app on phones; the idea is that it can provide online access to people who couldn’t otherwise afford wireless data service or don’t quite understand what the Internet can do for them. But Levy and others complain that this ends up pushing people onto some applications and not others. Zuckerberg and Facebook, critics say, become gatekeepers determining what apps people can access.
‘People accessing only applications pre-approved by Facebook aren’t experiencing the full breadth of the open Internet.’ Open Access
“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,” Access Now said in a blog post this week.
“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.”
Facebook and Daniels say that anyone can build a service for inclusion in the app. But Levy still takes issue with the arrangement. “This is not the way the Internet became the revolutionary platform it became,” he says. “So we still have a problem with it.”
That said, Levy and Access Now are happy with the Free Basics by Facebook moniker. The name Internet.org, they say, implied that people were getting full access to the Internet. “Changing the name of the program doesn’t change the actual program,” Levy says. “But it does clear up the confusion, which I think was fairly widespread, about the mission and goal of the program.”
And they like that Facebook is now encrypting data sent through the app, though the believe there are still security concerns. They say that the scheme used by Facebook doesn’t necessarily encrypt data at critical network end points and that if they, say, do online banking over the service web browser, they won’t be able to verify the identity of the bank.
Levy says that Access Now has had direct discussions with Facebook on the matter, though he declines to specify details. He argues that Facebook should modify the app so that it provides full Internet access but kept costs down using “super low” data caps. This won’t push people to Facebook in particular, which may be a reason Facebook is opposed to the setup. But Daniels says that Internet.org—or rather, Free Basics—isn’t just about giving Internet service to people who can’t afford Internet service. It’s about showing people what the Internet can do for them.
So many people on earth, he says, can afford Internet service but don’t realize why they need it. “They just don’t understand what services are out there,” he says, estimating that this group numbers around two billion people. “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.” If you give them a taste, he says, they will move to the broader Internet.
“I don’t think anyone who suffers from the awareness barrier is going to be attracted by some megabytes,” he says. “That doesn’t make sense to people.”