Mark Zuckerberg offered an apologia for Internet.org in an excruciatingly awkward video. / Facebook
Jacob Silverman,  May 6, 2015

Facebook’s Web of Tiers

Mark Zuckerberg offered an apologia for Internet.org in an excruciatingly awkward video. / Facebook
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The oligarchs are here to help. That’s the message that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg relayed in an excruciatingly awkward video released on Monday. The video—a tense apologia featuring many “should”s and “must”s from Zuckerberg and more than one suggestion of a sweat droplet—was prompted by wide-ranging criticism of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, which claims to give customers in developing countries free access to a stripped-down version of the Internet.

The criticism has been particularly acute in India. Internet.org launched there in February with a menu of thirty-eight free-to-browse websites (Facebook included, of course), and since then, digital rights advocates have been pushing back.

At issue is the practice of “zero-rating,” in which telecom providers waive data usage fees, but only for certain sites and services. In India and other countries, Facebook is partnering with local telecoms and tech companies to zero-rate the sites it wants to offer through Internet.org.

Zero-rating is essential to Internet.org, says Zuckerberg; it means he can handpick websites that are compatible with the venture’s lightweight tech specs (no video streaming) and educational mission. Approved sites, like Bing, BBC News, and Indian job board Babajob, have created low-bandwidth variants that are easier to use on cheap smartphones and that satisfy several other requirements.

But it also means that Facebook is creating a de facto web of tiers. Wherever Internet.org decides to alight—in nine countries so far, and more than a hundred by next year, if Zuckerberg has his way—some websites will be accessible to telecom customers free of charge, while other sites will not. That’s a clear violation of net neutrality, according to which all Internet traffic should be treated equally. If Indian Internet.org users can access Babajob for free, but not Naukri.com, another major jobs portal, then that’s a problem.

Zuckerberg seems to understand the criticism, but instead of working to provide access to the entire Internet to those on the other side of the so-called digital divide, he’s sticking to his initial business plan, and plying us with yet more soaring rhetoric to make it sound grand.

If you watch Zuckerberg’s announcement, prepare for familiar homilies taken out of the neoliberal, developmentalist playbook. Sounding like a World Bank executive, Zuckerberg promises to empower a “local fisherman,” a “chicken farmer in Zambia,” and an “expectant mother looking up information about how to safely raise her child.” “If we can connect them,” he assures us, “then we’ll raise hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.”

The recipe seems to be this: Take some slow Internet access, add a few stripped-down web services (don’t forget Wikipedia, that brass ring of autodidacts everywhere), slap on a domain name of staggering hubris, and voilà—poverty cured!

Some observers were appeased by Zuckerberg’s announcement Monday of the Internet.org Platform, an open hub for developers looking to submit compatible, low-bandwidth websites for inclusion in Internet.org. But this expansion is only the next phase of Zuckerberg’s larger plan, which is to help connect the remaining two-thirds of the world’s people to the Internet so they can become profitable data producers—excuse me, I mean, so they can benefit from all the magical opportunities the Internet has to offer.

Internet.org may dress itself up as a humanitarian effort, but in the end, it is simply a customer-acquisition vehicle for Facebook. Mahesh Murthy, an Indian investor, described the program as “economic racism—exploiting the poor in under-developed parts of the world to become your customers under the guise of some apparent charitable purpose.”

Indeed, Facebook has explicitly stated its hope that Internet.org customers, happy with their free taste of access, will decide to pony up and pay Facebook’s telecom partners for more. According to Facebook, Internet.org “aims to give people valuable free services that they can use to discover the entire wealth of online services and, ultimately become paying users of the internet.”

Yet Facebook seems to be doing very little to make sure that those people aren’t then gouged by local providers. This is troubling, especially since the cost of Internet access is one of the barriers that Zuckerberg says he is trying to overcome. (For that matter, we could use some of his help here in the United States, in the land of state-sanctioned telecom monopolies and terrible service.)

And then there’s the question of security. Now that Facebook is positioning itself as a conduit to the Internet for billions of people, will it also protect their data against unauthorized snooping from criminals or overzealous security services? As Josh Levy, advocacy director for digital rights group Access, points out, Facebook won’t allow participating sites to use SSL, TLS, or HTTPS, which are three of the most commonly used protocols for securing Internet traffic. This is not only a problem from a security standpoint—imagine being one of Zuckerberg’s idealized fisherman and having your phone taken over by malware, with no tech support in sight—but also because many of Internet.org’s prospective customers live in countries with repressive governments prone to mass surveillance.

Of course, Facebook will be doing plenty of snooping itself—that’s its core business. One main plank of the Internet.org platform is that data traffic is routed through Facebook’s servers. This measure, designed to prevent users from paying data costs, has the added benefit of allowing Facebook to monitor everything that Internet.org customers do.

This is what happens when major tech companies declare themselves to be open platforms, a sleight of hand that really means, We want to be the conduit for as much data as possible, but you have to play by our rules. In the United States, too, companies are eager to overhaul the open Internet in the image of their cloistral apps. This year, analysts estimate, American smartphone users “are projected to spend 81 percent of their time on the mobile Internet inside applications, and 19 percent on the web.” It’s not that apps are inherently bad. But tech companies know they can better monitor and manage users by encouraging them to stay within their own platforms. A user who is free to browse the open Internet is one who is free to give money, time, data, and attention to competitors.

In part for that reason, Internet.org is not the only effort of its type. In a recent report, consulting firm Rewheel found that thirty-six mobile phone operators in developed countries had zero-rated their own video services. And under Google’s Free Zone program, offered in developing countries, mobile phone services waive data fees for customers accessing Gmail and other Google services. (In recent years, several nations have banned zero-rating.)

The Indian backlash to Internet.org should be welcomed. No strangers to colonialist ventures wrapped in the language of economic liberation, Indians have filled newspapers with defiant op-eds and flooded the country’s telecoms regulator with complaints. A number of local companies quit the program, citing net neutrality or Facebook’s anti-competitive practices. As one Indian activist group explained, “Internet.org is not open, and despite its name, is not the Internet.”

Mark Zuckerberg is fond of saying that connectivity is a human right. If he truly believes that, he would stop conducting business under the cover of charity and let Indians—and not Facebook and its corporate partners—decide how that right should be secured. 

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, is published by HarperCollins.

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