What began as some squabbling over the definition of net neutrality in India has evolved into a global public relations shit show for Facebook. As we’ve been discussing, India’s government has been trying to define net neutrality ahead of the creation of new neutrality rules. Consumers and content companies have been making it very clear they believe Facebook’s Internet.org initiative violates net neutrality because it offers free, walled-garden access to only some Facebook approved content partners, instead of giving developing nations access to the entire Internet.
Internet.org partners began dropping out of the initiative, arguing they don’t like any model where Facebook gets to decide which content is accessed for free — and which content remains stuck outside of Internet.org. Facebook so far has responded by trying to claim that if you oppose Internet.org you’re the one hurting the poor, because a walled garden is better than no Internet at all. Of course that’s a false choice; Facebook could simply provide subsidized access to the entire Internet, but that wouldn’t provide them with a coordinated leg-up in the developing nation ad markets of tomorrow.
So far Facebook’s defense of Internet.org’s zero rating of some content has only made criticism louder. A coalition of sixty-seven different digital activism groups from thirty-one different countries this week penned an open letter to Facebook on Facebook, arguing that Internet.org will actually hurt the poor by cordoning off meaningful parts of the actual Internet. The groups, many of which have been pushing for increased broadband deployment far longer than Facebook has, are quick to point out that Facebook’s injection of itself between users and the Internet doesn’t just raise net neutrality concerns, but privacy and security issues as well:
The censorship capability of Internet gateways is well established — some governments require ISPs to block access to sites or services. 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. The company should not take on this added responsibility and risk by creating a single centralized checkpoint for the free flow of information.
Even if Facebook were able to figure out a way to support HTTPS proxying on feature phones, its position as Internet gatekeepers remains more broadly troublesome. By setting themselves up as gatekeepers for free access to (portions of) the global Internet, Facebook and its partners have issued an open invitation for governments and special interest groups to lobby, cajole or threaten them to withhold particular content from their service. In other words, Internet.org would be much easier to censor than a true global Internet.
Still, so far there’s every indication that Facebook either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand, what critics are saying. The company recently posted a new myths versus facts release on the Internet.org site that somehow manages to talk over, under and around most of the points critics have been making. There’s also this gem, in which Facebook actually denies that Internet.org has anything to do with making money:
MYTH: Facebook has launched Internet.org to help drive its own growth and revenue opportunities within developing countries.
FACT: There are no ads within the Facebook experience on Internet.org. If revenue were the goal, Facebook would have focused resources on markets where online advertising is already thriving.”
This pretense on Facebook’s part that Internet.org is solely about altruism is adorable, but it’s not clear who, if anyone, actually believes that. To most, it’s obvious Facebook wants in at the ground floor in order to dominate the ad markets of tomorrow, and what better way to do that than to position yourself as the walled-garden Compuserve of developing nations. Facebook could nip this entire problem in the bud in two simple steps. One, Facebook needs to stop acting like everyone is too stupid to see its real motives. And two, if Facebook is so very concerned about the poor, it should put its money where its mouth is and shift to a subsidized model that gets Facebook out of the way and provides access to the real Internet, free from obvious interference, censorship, privacy and neutrality concerns.