I read an interesting opinion piece on Wired earlier today regarding Facebook’s “Internet.org,” an ambitious program aimed at connecting millions of off-the-grid individuals to the Internet in ways that could only be dreamed of a decade ago. At face value, it’s an incredible opportunity to provide the incalculable benefits of the Internet to areas that have been unable to support the infrastructure necessary to “plug in.” In fact, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg uploaded a video yesterday that discusses the “historic opportunity” to help over 4 billion people around the world, and he even throws in a number of instances that show why Internet.org is “the right thing to do” (four instances n succession, if my math is correct).
However, Josh Levy argues that this may not be as virtuous an endeavor as everyone is led to believe. In the aforementioned article in Wired, Levy argues that Internet.org “sets Facebook up to serve as a quasi-internet service provider—except that unlike a local or national telco, all web traffic will be routed through Facebook’s servers.” Despite the fact that they are supposedly for net neutrality, the people who end up trying to connect to Facebook’s “Internet solution” will be sending their information and requests straight through Facebook’s servers like a coffee filter. Except in this case, the filter has holes so tiny that even water struggles to pass through.
This may not seem like a big deal for those who are just casual Internet users, but a service that doesn’t utilize proper security measures for its users is not a service I’d EVER want to be a part of (not that Internet.org’s target audience has much of a choice…and if you skim through my past DigA posts, you’d know how big of a proponent I am for privacy, Internet security, and general tech literacy). SSL and TLS provide crucial stability to our day-to-day lives, working behind-the-scenes to allow users to transit private information confidently as well as providing cryptographic security measures to protect one’s info (you may see SSL and TLS firsthand when you see a little green padlock in the address bar for safe/secure websites). Add in the fact that everything’s being routed through Facebook’s servers, and you have a scenario that makes new users very vulnerable.
I’m not going to comment much on the types of sites and services that aren’t allowed through Internet.org, which includes streaming and media-heavy sites. Setting up a new form of infrastructure in the developing world isn’t easy, and streaming hours upon hours of Daredevil through Netflix would probably affect these particular networks much more than the networks in the states (fantastic show, btw). Facebook altered its position on the initial amount of “allowed” websites in response to the defenders of net neutrality and the activists in India who said that Internet.org violated the principles of an open web. The changes, which may be a step in the right direction, present a number of obstacles that Facebook will have to confront as the general public has become more and more skeptical of “big brother” scenarios in the wake of all of the NSA and Snowden hysteria.
If this Internet.org thing is going to work, it’s going to require three key elements in my opinion: transparency, security, and respect. Facebook has already taken steps in addressing the transparency issue, but it still has a ways to go. Levy laid out a number of these concerns in Wired, which included but aren’t limited to “details on policies regarding user data, responding to government requests, partnership models with telecom operator partners, or administration of the program.” You can’t just spawn an Internet out of thin air and expect literally billions of potential users to just accept it for what it is, especially in regards to what they will need to pay for if they desire more from the service (and where that money will go).
Where security is concerned, Facebook has a LOT to improve on. Mark Zuckerberg addressed the lack of basic security in a recent Twitter conversation with coder Frederic Jacobs, claiming that “we’re going to support HTTPS and SSL…we still need to do some work to make this work on all phones and browsers – so that’s why our docs say it’s not currently available – but we’re going to make this happen soon.” Without any form of strong encryptions to protect information like logins and passwords, users are going to have to be particularly vigilant when they use their service. From a devil’s advocate perspective, though, Internet.org is providing something so basic (approximately $0) that tons of information that people may need can be accessed without the need for login information. Weather conditions, market prices, directions and maps, Wiki articles, etc. don’t necessarily need to be held to the same security standards as, say, logging in and out of your PayPal account (an action that Internet.org’s primary user base probably won’t be doing much of). As one commenter wrote in a recent news story about the matter, “It’s free. If you don’t like how FB does free, make your own free.”
Finally, respect. Many of the people that Internet.org aims to help have wished for something like this to come along for a long, long time, but they may or may not fully understand what they’re getting into as far as usability is concerned. Because there are so many limiting factors to the service (no streaming, tiny file transfers, etc), there will inevitably be a higher-end version that Facebook is providing for those who aren’t satisfied with the bare minimum. On the one hand, something is better than nothing, and free is a pretty great price point. But Levy, who prefers to call Facebook’s service “Facebooknet,” writes that “Internet.org’s model—giving users a taste of connectivity before prompting them to purchase pricey data plans—fails to acknowledge the economic reality for millions of new internet users who can’t afford those plans…these users could get stuck on a separate and unequal path to internet connectivity, which will serve to widen—not narrow—the digital divide.” Facebook must respect the people it aims to help and not take advantage of their situation as a business opportunity. If Zuckerberg truly wants to help these people, he must place the service he’s providing way in front of the potential revenue gained from untapped markets (markets that were untapped due to being off-the-grid, so to speak).
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming years. I’m still reeling over the fact that I considered Facebook to be spiraling downwards a few years ago, and now they’re positioning themselves as the ultimate Internet good samaritan. Something about this entire situation seems a bit fishy, though…..if there are extreme data restrictions and limitations on video streams, how will Internet.org’s users interact with frustrating ads that autoplay on loud as they scroll through their newsfeeds?
If Internet.org does not include these types of ads, please email me a link to the beta.