Facebook opens up Internet.org amid India's battle for net neutrality

On Monday, Facebook announced the introduction of the open source Internet.org Platform. But as Facebook attempts to let more developers in, net neutrality activists in India say it is still keeping people out.

Karly Domb Sadof
File - Shot of the Facebook app icon on an iPhone in New York.

If you had asked people in India about their opinion on "net neutrality" a month ago, they likely would have had the same American, pre-John-Oliver-segment response: "Net, what?" But asking the same question today might ignite a debate on how free and open the Internet should be.

Much as in the US, net neutrality advocates have a group of comedians to thank for finally gaining the public’s attention on the matter. After a video went viral of the group explaining the idea and what its demise means for users, the backlash was swift and effective with more than 800,000 Indians messaging their telecommunications providers demanding everyone have fair access to the Internet.

Now, a different tech giant, outside of India’s telecommunication companies, has suddenly found itself stuck in the country’s crosshairs on the issue of net neutrality: Facebook.

Facebook being swept up in the debate may or may not have led the company to open its Internet.org Platform to all developers around the world. The move was designed to create more transparency over which sites the platform will support, as it explained in a blog. Lack of transparency over which sites would make it onto the service was one of the major complaints in India.

The reason advocates are concerned about Inernet.org, which has the ultimate goal of connecting “the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have Internet access,” is that while the ambitious goal sounds noble, it also makes Facebook one of the few, if not the only providers of Web service in many places. Net neutrality supporters believe the social media site having a dominant position with access, and the way it applies those powers, is limiting the principles of an open Web by favoring certain sites and apps.

After sustained pressure, several websites that initially partnered with Internet.org backed out. One major associate, Cleartrip, a site that provides travel information, explained its reasoning for breaking the deal in a blog post, stating, “it is impossible to pretend there is no conflict of interest (both real and perceived) in our decision to be a participant in Internet.org.”

While Facebook has called its latest move a “natural evolution” of the service, others believe public pressure and multiple partners backing out led to the company opening the Internet.org platform to the public. Either way, Internet.org is now an open program for developers to “easily create services that integrate with Internet.org.” Facebook also said in the post that the move gives more choices to those who use its free basic service.

Facebook has so far launched the service in India, Zambia, Colombia, Guatemala, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, the Philippines, and Indonesia. In India, the company partnered with Reliance Communications, an Indian telecommunications company, to provide nearly 40 websites and services free to users, including some related to health, travel, weather, local sports, Facebook, and the Facebook Messenger app.

Now with the open platform, those who rely on Internet.org should see more options when they log on to the Web.

The system will work, as the vice president of product for Internet.org Chris Daniels explained, much like an app store’s approval process.

“Any developer can submit their site or service to us to be a part of the new Internet.org platform,” Mr. Daniels said in an interview with the Hindustan Times. “In general, sites and services that are part of the Internet.org platform will need to adhere to three principles: they need to offer a simpler version of their existing service to encourage people go out and explore the broader internet. They will also need to be extremely data efficient because this has to work for [telecom] operators. It can’t be a constraint on their networks. So things like video or high-resolution photos aren’t going to be appropriate for this.”

Those who do not meet the new guidelines, which include using certain programming languages over others, will not make the final cut. As Daniels went on to say in the interview, these are “basic services” that need to be compatible with low tech, as well as high tech.

While these guidelines still limit consumers’ access to content, Daniels went on to explain that Internet.org is a “jumping-off point” for access.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook, went on to say in a video in the post that it was "not sustainable to offer the whole internet for free." 

"It costs tens of billions of dollars every year to run the internet, and no operator could afford this if everything were free," Mr. Zuckerberg said. "But it is sustainable to build free basic services that are simpler, use less data and work on all low-end phones."

While the rational for limiting Web access sounds pretty sound, as the BBC reports, it does not appear to go far enough for net neutrality advocates. Protests are expected to continue.

"Because of the competitive aspect of Internet.org, if my competitor is on it, I will feel compelled to be on it as well," said Nikhil Pahwa, a volunteer for the SaveTheInternet.in campaign, to the BBC. "And all of this data will be available to Facebook and - because of the lack of HTTPS - that data can also be sniffed by telecom operators and by governments."

Facebook has confirmed it will have the capabilities to track individuals who use its service, which has only added to the backlash.

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