4 Questions for Internet.org as Internet for the Poor

Approximately 80% of the world’s population lives in areas already covered by 2G or 3G networks. The coverage is mostly urban, with the basic infrastructure already constructed by mobile service providers. So in these locations, the main obstacle to Internet access is not being able to afford it.
As a solution, Facebook launched its Internet.org initiative in 2013, with the goal of providing “free Internet access” for the two thirds of the world who do not have it. By partnering with local telecommunications providers and hardware makers in the developing world, people who cannot afford a data plan will have access to a certain number of applications (depending on the country).
This practice is called “Zero Rating” or “sponsored data”, where carriers and services subsidize access to some products. The project has been launched in Tanzania, Kenya, Colombia, Ghana, India, Philippines, Guatemala and Indonesia. But recently in India, several telecommunication firms withdrew from the deal because of complaints that the project threatens the principle of network neutrality.
Can Facebook claim to be giving free Internet access, but only to a few applications?
In its defense, Mark Zuckerberg claimed there is no conflict between increasing connectivity and network neutrality. But India’s Save The Internet Coalition wrote in the Hindustan Times that Internet.org is “Zuckerberg’s ambitious project to confuse hundreds of millions of emerging market users into thinking that Facebook and the Internet are one and the same.”
Not all connections were created equal
On one end, Zuckerberg argues that “something is better than nothing” and says that this limited access will incentivize users to purchase a full data plan. One of ICT4D’s main goals is indeed access; leveling the information playing field. Nonetheless, by selling Internet.org as “universal access” to the Internet, many will jump at the chance of not paying for a data plan, and we can assume most of them will be the world’s poorest.
According to Mark Graham from the Oxford Internet Institute, bridging the digital gap is not only about connectivity, but about what the Internet is being used for. Yet by providing free access to the two thirds of the population who don’t have Internet yet, Facebook positions itself as their main access gate to the web, certainly conflicting with the principle of network neutrality.
Even the sharing of external content is limited, since users cannot click on links to external web sites. He is therefore creating a parallel internet: the internet of the poor vs the actual one.
Even before the project, Facebook is already gaining ground as the Internet’s front door. In 2012, think tank LIRNEasia found that 11% of Indonesians who said they used Facebook also said they did not use the internet. In Nigeria, 9% of Facebook users said they do not use the Internet. Even Sheryl Sandberg admits that there are Facebook users who don’t know they are on the Internet, and that in some people walk into phone stores and say “I want Facebook”.
Facebook claims that it itself is a catalyst for economic development. A Deloitte report commissioned by the company claims that the social network was responsible for $227 billion in global economic impact, and 4.5 million jobs in 2014. But according to the Wall Street Journal, independent economists said the study used questionable assumptions. “The results are meaningless,” Stanford economist Roger Noll said in an email. “Facebook is an effect, not a cause, of the growth of Internet access and use.”
Bringing connectivity to everyone
Nonetheless, the zero rating partnerships are only part of Internet.org’s strategy. For 20% of the world’s population the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built. Internet.org’s Connectivity Lab is trying to create alternative means of connection, including high-altitude drones, which have already been successfully tested. Google’s Project Loon is their competition for the disconnected world population. The project aims to reach rural and remote areas via balloons.
4 Questions for ICT practitioners

  1. Is it a monopoly? To incentivize local economy, local start ups to be accessible. Closed-internet projects such as these tilt the balance against small local initiatives. Any venture that is currently creating apps of web-based services will be cut off from their target audiences. In an interview with Colombian paper “El Tiempo,” internet.org’s vice-president Chris Daniels said the selection for the included aps comes from a discussion between Facebook, the mobile provider and the local government. “We determine which ones are more useful and are more likely to improve lives.” They say they are open to include more, but the process one would have to follow to get there remains ambiguous.
  2. Is it philanthropy? Zuckerberg visited Colombia in January where the project launched in South America. For now, the service is available to customers of Tigo (the biggest mobile service provider) even if they do not have a data plan. Tigo is aggressively using it in its advertising to lure customers away from other mobile service providers.
  3. Is it equitable? As ICT practitioners, it is important to ensure that the voice of civil society in developing nations is heard, especially since regulation has not caught up with the technologies that are already well within borders. India raised its voice, but the initiative has been going on since 2013. It continued to go through Indonesia even after India. Either people do not understand what it means, or they could easily be confused by the project’s name and promises.
  4. Is it the best option? It is important to see what other alternatives could be found to improve connectivity. Letting American internet giants in charge of connectivity is not only risky, but almost imperialistic. There is always that to content with when talking about aid in development. Does the end justify the means?

Update: Facebook has introduced the Internet.org Platform, an open program for developers to easily create services that integrate with Internet.org. They are also giving people more choice over the free basic services they can use.
Andrea Alarcón Sojet is a journalist and online media consultant in Bogota, Colombia.