Facebook is rebranding its most prominent—and controversial—effort to connect the unconnected. Today the company said it will change the name of its Internet.org app and mobile website, now available to mobile phone users in 18 countries, to Free Basics by Facebook.
The change is intended to better distinguish the app and website from Internet.org, the larger initiative that spawned it and is incubating many technologies and business models to help get the web to new users faster. The rebranding announcement comes days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit Facebook’s campus, an event that will be aired on prime time television in India on Sunday.
These moves are classic Zuckerberg. Caught slightly off-guard by the backlash, he has moved quickly to address critics’ concerns.
Free Basics, née Internet.org, has faced a global backlash that began in India last April. Several Indian web publishers pulled out of the program, which lets some publishers offer pared-down versions of services to users free through a Facebook-built app. They worried that Facebook was conspiring with mobile carriers to determine which websites qualified for inclusion. They said this violated the principles of net neutrality—the idea Internet providers should treat all online service the same. The criticism gained momentum in May when nearly 70 advocacy groups released a letter to Zuckerberg protesting Internet.org, arguing it violated net neutrality principles and stirred security concerns.
In a blog post and a video, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg defended the program, saying it didn’t block or throttle services and therefore didn’t conflict with net neutrality. He said it cost too much to make the entire Internet available to everyone; Facebook’s approach was an economically viable way to bring the Internet to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it. “Net neutrality should not prevent access,” he said in a seven-minute video he made in May. “It’s not an equal Internet if the majority of people can’t participate.”
Though Zuckerberg defended the spirit of the program, the company also worked quickly to address concerns about equal access, privacy, and security. In May, the company announced plans to open its platform so no publisher is excluded. Since then, Free Basics has added 60 services, and the platform is open to all developers. Users can select these services, which include everything from job boards to maternal health sites to Wikipedia, from within a menu in the Free Basics app.
Facebook also is doubling down on its commitment to security and privacy. This is especially critical in parts of the world that are not set up for modern security measures, where networks are more constrained, devices are generally older, and modern security protocols sometimes aren’t supported. Earlier this year, activists criticized the company for failing to protect users adequately from malicious attacks or to offer them cover from prying government eyes. Zuckerberg made a commitment to improve security measures. Now the social network says it’s committed to encrypting information wherever possible, and it is finally able to offer support for services using the standard HTTPS protocol in both the Android app and the web version rather than the less secure HTTP protocol.
These moves are classic Zuckerberg. Caught slightly off-guard by the backlash, he has moved quickly to address critics’ concerns. Going forward, it’s probably a good thing that users will no longer get to Facebook on their phones by pushing the “Internet.org” button, but will instead open the “Free Basics” app. The app is meant to be an onramp to the web, after all, not the Internet itself. But Zuckerberg is not pulling back on the Internet.org strategy. Instead, he’s pushing aggressively to get Free Basics into new markets. And he’s taking every opportunity to share his conviction that connectivity is a human right by traveling from Panama to India to visit world leaders—and inviting them to visit Facebook’s Hacker Square.