Facebook Turns Internet.org into a Platform

Facebook is turning Internet.org, its project to provide free internet to new users, into a platform. The move comes amid criticism of the program’s “walled garden” approach to hand-picking services, and claims that it violates the principles of net neutrality.

Mark Zuckerberg says he is no enemy of net neutrality – and to prove it, he’s making a few changes to Internet.org, a Facebook-led effort to bring internet services to the developing world.

Internet.org and what it means.

Internet.org is a global partnership between technology leaders, nonprofits, local communities and experts who are working together to bring the internet to the two thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it. – That’s the official overview.

Internet.org was first available in a handful of African countries, but it has since expanded to Asia with launches in India (population of 1 billion-plus) and Indonesia (population of 250 million) among others.

The initial outrage.

The move into becoming a platform comes amid criticism which lasted weeks after several Indian publishers accused Internet.org of running afoul of net neutrality, because the organization was working with mobile carriers to determine which websites qualify to be included on the central Internet.org app, which is available for free across the developing world. The publishers argued that by giving away free access to some websites and not all of them, Internet.org was creating an unequal internet.

The changes.

The new Internet.org platform will let any developer create services to be delivered through Facebook’s free but stripped-down version of the internet. In other words, the internet access Facebook is bringing to developing parts of the world will no longer consist solely of services cherry-picked for inclusion by some overpaid Facebook employees.

“Our goal with Internet.org is to work with as many developers and entrepreneurs as possible to extend the benefits of connectivity to diverse, local communities. To do this, we’re going to offer services through Internet.org in a way that’s more transparent and inclusive,” Facebook said in a blog post.

While the platform will be open to all prospective developers, there are three central principles that partners must adhere to, Facebook said:

  1.  “Services should encourage the exploration of the broader internet wherever possible.” — This is fairly vague, but it looks to imply that restricting users inside any particular app isn’t ok.
  2. “Websites that require high-bandwidth will not be included. Services should not use VoIP, video, file transfer, high resolution photos, or high volume of photos.” — Facebook points out that operators are giving up resources for the project for free, so they’re implanting limits that help operators breathe easy.
  3. Facebook expects partner services to be optimized for smartphones and feature phones, and be free from JavaScript or SSL/TLS/HTTPS elements. — This is rather unfortunate, with the rest of the internet being thrust into encryption security.

What this means.

There are some glaring concerns with internet.org.

Essentially, the changes mean that anyone can build an app for Internet.org, but they must be approved by Facebook before users gain access to them. Even then, a partner telecom company can decide not to offer the service and even then, the service must allow Facebook to track users and share that data with telecom companies and the local government.

It’s clear that Internet.org isn’t entirely open. We also now know that it doesn’t take user privacy seriously, with the lack of encryption. Facebook should do better, much better.