I have previously asked the question, in relation to Mark Zuckerberg's Internet.org project, is some internet access better than none at all? That's the basic principle being touted by the Facebook founder in countries where large proportions of the population can't afford data bundles to get full access to the internet.
His theory goes that instead of cutting off these people from the online world, let Facebook work with partners and mobile operators to provide them with a curated set of services that they can get access to for free. This is called 'zero rating', whereby Facebook and the mobile operators take on the cost of data to allow citizens access to some internet services.
Go outside of this walled garden and you'll pay, but stay in it and you can browse for free.
Zuckerberg's defence is that getting these people online, even if it is just to access a few services (such as Facebook, Bing, Wikipedia, etc.), is better for their social and economic well-being than not being online at all. Equally, he argues that once people start accessing this select services, they may well end up willing to pay for broader access.
Get people online, get them digital, get them communicating, with the hope that this boosts their broader prospects and allows them to interact with the world online.
So what's the problem? Well, Zuckerberg's project is firmly at odds with the principles of net neutrality – even though he denies that this is the case. Net Neutrality is the principle that internet providers and governments should treat all data on the internet equally, not discriminating or charging based on different users, types of content, platforms or applications.
Obviously, by introducing free select services via Internet.org, which are carefully selected by Zuckerberg, without much insight into how these partner services are selected, and then having to pay for broader access to the internet, you're introducing a two-tiered system.
Zuckerberg insists that the two principles are not at odds. He has defended the approach by saying:
We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It’s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it.
Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles – net neutrality and universal connectivity – can and must coexist.
However, as we reported last month, not everybody agrees. Following the launch of Internet.org in India, a number of partners of the application pulled out of the deal and over 800,000 people sent emails to the country's telecoms regulator demanding that it ensures a free, open and fair internet.
Their point was that Internet.org has the potential to confuse huge swathes of people across the world that Zuckerberg's selection of services is actually the internet, when it absolutely is not. It's a curated version of the internet.
And this week the backlash continued to grow, as 67 digital rights groups from across the globe signed an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, published on Facebook, outlining their concerns about the project.
The letter states:
We, the undersigned, share a common concern about the launch and expansion of Facebook’s Internet.org platform and its implications for the open Internet around the world. On that open Internet, all content, applications and services are treated equally, without any discrimination. We are especially concerned that access for impoverished people is construed as justification for violations of net neutrality.
It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services. Further, we are deeply concerned thatInternet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full Internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of Internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs. In its present conception, Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.
Aside from the implications of a two-tier internet, the conflicts with net-neutrality and the ability for users to conflate Internet.org with the actually internet, the 67 signees also bring up a couple of other lesser-addressed issues.
Firstly, they argue that by Facebook becoming a gateway to the internet for many people, this puts the company in a position whereby it could be subject to censorship requests by governments. It notes that Facebook is 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.
In Internet.org's defence, it has also collated a list of 'myths and facts' relating to the organisation, in which it argues that it is not attempting to create a walled garden of free content on the internet. Instead, it notes, that “Internet.org is successful only if the newly connected reach the broader internet”. It claims that operators can't afford to invest in improving their infrastructure if new users never pay for data.
Internet.org also notes that since its launch it has brought more than 9 million people online.
As I've said before, I sympathise with the people making use of Internet.org. I'm sure that for many of them – at least in the short to medium team – some internet IS better than no internet at all. However, I simply can't justify the thought of a select few powerful companies and operators making decisions behind closed doors about which internet services huge proportions of a population can use. It just doesn't sit well with me and it absolutely, in my mind, creates a walled garden.
Whilst Zuckerberg's intentions may be good, if millions of people start to conflate Internet.org with the actual internet, that starts to put Facebook in an incredibly powerful position. A position that essentially equates to a governor of a large proportion of the internet. And that cannot be a good thing.