Not satisfied with its 1.4 billion members — roughly half of the world’s internet-connected population — Facebook founded the Internet.org project in 2013 to spread internet access to poor communities around the world and thereby accelerate its own growth and reach. This week, the Internet.org app arrives in India, allowing locals free access to Facebook and a curated list of services that Facebook likes. On the surface, it seems like a net positive for India and for humanity, bringing more connectivity and information to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it. But every good thing comes at a price, and in the case of Internet.org, that price is net neutrality.
Despite its name, net neutrality is not a neutral concept. It has the positive goal of ensuring fairness and equitable treatment — both for users accessing the internet and for companies offering their services online. Net neutrality demands that all internet traffic, irrespective of its source, content, or destination, be treated equally. Internet.org is doing the exact opposite of that by setting up a dichotomy between the internet that is paid for and the free, Facebook-approved version.
Subsidized data breeding Facebook dependency
Before its deal with Indian mobile operator Reliance, Facebook had sealed agreements with Airtel (covering Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia) and Tigo (for Colombia and Tanzania). In all those countries, Internet.org allows free browsing within Facebook and its surrounding bubble of whitelisted services, but users are warned that they’ll incur data charges if they try to access links to elsewhere on the web. Internet, meet your new gatekeeper.
Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently spoke out against precisely this type of so-called positive traffic discrimination: where one set of apps and services are privileged over another by discounting rather than raising prices. It may seem beneficial in the short term, but it’s a formula for starving out competition and ultimately stagnating the market for available web services. Users of Internet.org in India will get Bing, AccuWeather, and BBC News for free, but will have to pay to access Google search, Yahoo Weather, or any other local alternatives. "Imagine if a new startup or service provider had to ask permission from or pay a fee to a competitor before they could attract customers," writes Berners-Lee. He worries about telcos and mobile carriers gaining the excessive power of handpicking the winners and losers, but with Internet.org, it is Facebook that’s wielding that gavel. Neither Facebook nor Reliance has disclosed the details of how Internet.org services are selected or their providers compensated.
At the turn of the century, American tech companies and startups found a new frontier for innovation on the internet and engaged in an open, relatively equitable competition to see who was best. That’s how Amazon, eBay, Google, and yes, even Facebook rose to their present positions of preeminence. But now Facebook is heading out to other countries and setting up a first-mover advantage for itself that would preclude the same sort of open competition. The Indian Mark Zuckerberg stands little chance of ousting Facebook if his service costs more to access than the subsidized US original.
"We're doing Internet.org to serve our mission of connecting the world rather than trying to make a profit anytime soon."
Responding to criticism about Facebook serving its own commercial interests under the guise of philanthropy, Zuckerberg says, "We're doing Internet.org to serve our mission of connecting the world rather than trying to make a profit anytime soon. We could make much more money from advertising to rich people than we'd make from advertising to people who can't afford internet access." And yet, his solution to a shortage of internet connectivity is to provide access to only a small, Facebook-dominated segment of the web.
Before the Internet.org version of a free circumscribed internet, there was AOL and its deluge of free trial CDs. The first experience of the internet for many Americans was through AOL’s program, which took them online via a dial-up modem and sought to keep them ensnared within AOL’s distilled version of the web. As with Facebook today, the initial incentive was free internet access that led to a set of services without immediate competition. If you wanted news, weather, horoscopes, messaging, or email, and you were just starting out on the web with AOL, you probably got them all from AOL. Yahoo tried to achieve a similar one-stop-shop version of the web, as did Microsoft with MSN.
Like AOL in the '90s, Facebook wants to be the very first "internet" that people experience
Acting as an internet gateway is predicated on funneling users through your particular gate, which Microsoft achieved with the prevalence of Internet Explorer, AOL did with its CDs, and Facebook is now doing by subsidizing access to its services. Over time, though, all internet portals have eventually disintegrated and had to let in the full spectrum of the web, which could well be Facebook's intention with Internet.org. In the best case scenario, Facebook's subsidized data deals will be only a transitory stage on the way to more ambitious projects like its internet-beaming satellites and drones.
Most people draw no clear distinction between the internet and the web, because the web is the most immediate and direct way to experience the benefits of the vast computer network that connects the globe. Facebook’s ambition is to achieve the same status, to reach a point where internet users and Facebook users overlap to such an extent that they become unaware of the difference between the two. It sounds preposterous, but then Facebook’s scale is already preposterous. A social network that began life on the web is gradually starting to eat the web up, with brands prioritizing their Facebook pages over their own domains and the former craze for search engine optimization being replaced by Facebook shareability.
What Facebook is doing with Internet.org isn’t strictly unfair. Every supermarket on the planet does discounts to incentivize more buyers, and big companies pour billions into advertising every year in order to amplify and protect their size advantage. Like a shrewd marketer, Facebook is investing in associating its name with a good thing — the internet — and establishing that as a permanent and indelible connection in its users’ minds. But it’s an effort that benefits only a select few beyond Facebook, and the company has kept quiet on the specifics of how it selects Internet.org services and who is paid what.
Is free Facebook the same thing as free internet?
"More than a billion people in India don’t have access to the internet," writes Mark Zuckerberg. "That means they can’t enjoy the same opportunities many of us take for granted, and the entire world is robbed of their ideas and creativity." Ironically, the practical impact of Internet.org will be to make it harder for Indian creativity to be expressed in the form of new mobile services. Any new startup that doesn’t get Facebook’s Internet.org blessing will have to struggle against better established competition that is also cheaper to access. How can India hope to recreate the success of Silicon Valley if Silicon Valley captures all the opportunity presented by the internet before local alternatives have a chance to develop and grow?
When we buy Facebook’s free internet, we pay for it with our freedom to explore and exploit the full breadth of the web. Instead of enabling Ghanaians, Indians, and Colombians to create their own internet tools and services, Internet.org is converting them into captive consumers. The whole world would benefit from greater access to the internet, but it must be the whole internet, not just Planet Facebook.