We do not need Internet.org, we need the Internet

The Internet is not just a bunch of websites with some images and text linked together. The internet is a place which guarantees freedom, equality and openness. The Internet is more of a search & discovery platform where most of the times people do not know where to look for information. The internet is always looking for new use cases, a place where you can create an app like Meerkat as late as March 2015, that allows you to stream any beautiful thing you are seeing right now live and get millions of users in couple of months.

Despite the intentional confusing name, Internet.org is not the internet. It is a platform with a mobile app front that allows you access to some basic online services. Many people called it a walled internet, but it is not even that. Internet.org is a privately controlled network, where a bunch of companies decide on what you can see, how much you can see and what to do with your usage data, simply because you happened to be less privileged and cannot buy data packs for your smartphone. Somehow Facebook decided that people who have never experienced the amazing capabilities of Internet are better off with a contraption that gives them access to basic forms of some websites that too without encryption and thus compromising security and privacy of users, without any interactivity that the modern web is built of, without support for high resolution images and videos, with the aim to make them pay for converting to what they call full-fledged internet. The problem is, a significant amount of users already think that Facebook is the Internet and they have no idea that they are using the Internet when they use Facebook. Naming this contraption Internet.org adds to the confusion.

The Internet is not just about websites of text and images, it is about videos, streaming, emails, VOIP calls all of which are either not possible with Internet.org or would be insecure to use without TLS. And this is the experience we would be providing the billion people who would use internet for the first time. It's like saying 'Hey, the internet is like your daily newspaper but on a screen. It gives you weather, news with small low-resolution images and local train timings. And for rich people it also allows you to watch movies and videos on YouTube, see high resolution beautiful pictures of historical monuments in other parts of the world, talk to your loved ones with video chat on Skype, pay for stuff they buy online using secure Net banking, consult with doctors using video conferencing at odd hours, take online courses on Coursera and learn whatever you want to learn and also click on your Google search results to actually see what the results contain'. (Yes, Internet.org in Zambia does not allow you to click on Google search results unless you pay for a data plan, imagine the usefulness!)

The confusion with Internet.org starts with its name. It is neither the Internet, nor is a non-profit as it appears from the .org in its name (though there is no hard restriction on the .org domain name, it is generally perceived to be used by non-profit organizations). Internet.org is not a philanthropic effort of Mark Zuckerberg using his own hard earned money in order to give back to society, but it is a for-profit effort and part of Facebook, a publicly traded company which has to show growth to its shareholders in every quarterly result. Internet.org is not a personal effort but companies initiative to get more users to use its product. Nearly everyone who has an internet connection is on Facebook, but as a company Facebook needs to show growth. This growth will come from making people who do not use the internet to use it. And what better place to do it than the fastest growing market for social media, India. With Internet.org, Facebook also becomes the gatekeeper or the big brother that allows, tracks and monitors what goes inside and comes out to unsuspecting users. With history of Facebook already being part of the infamous NSA surveillance Prism program, what happens with the massive unencrypted data from billion users that passes through Facebook property would be difficult to predict. Facebook already has media companies by their balls, as nearly all publications have their highest pageviews and thus revenues coming from social media. Upworthy is a live example of how a change by Facebook can significantly destroy traffic for an online publication.

This effort on the part of Facebook to bring new users from developing countries is not new. In 2010, Facebook started a basic version of their service, branding it Facebook Zero which was available in certain geographical locations like Africa and India with some telecom providers. It allowed users to browse Facebook for free without any charges. No surprises that number of African users on Facebook jumped by 110% in about a year.

Here is what Facebook writes about Internet.org. "The Internet.org Platform 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."

Till last week, the decision on what websites can be visited on Internet.org rested with Facebook, which could lead to positive discrimination and thus violating Net Neutrality. This would have made it difficult for small startups with a better product to compete with mammoth funded companies and also limit user choices in the long run. After a huge uproar here in India, Mark Zuckerberg had to write a column in an Indian newspaper, change the policy to allow developers to add a stripped down version of their service to Internet.org for review and start a Change.org campaign Facebook ad to support this effort. Some 110,000 unsuspecting people have already signed this petition.

So why is providing some form of access to information to users with fewer means bad?

As stated previously, it is not the internet.
The internet is not a directory of services like Yahoo search was in 1990s, but much more useful as a discovery and search medium when you do not know where the information is located. Taking an example, if you wanted train timings you can call Railway inquiry or ask someone in your family if you do not know the number or SMS on some number and you can get it. But when you want to know something no one you know knows about, like say you went batshit crazy like Breaking Bad and decided to know how to cook crystal meth and where you can get individual ingredients in your local area, it is not possible with any of your known information sources (unless you know a meth cook). Now with internet you could have found this with some research but this is not possible with internet.org. If you just want a set of basic services, it reminds me of the BSNL menu that we used to get on Nokia 1100, 1 for Train timings, 2 for Jokes, 3 for Cricket Score, 4 for Wallpapers... You can even use this for providing basic services and reach people who do not have smartphones. Much wider audience! Then why need the internet when text and small images are enough for everyone.

"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". - Internet.org terms & conditions

Internet.org concentrates too much power in hands of telecom operators & Facebook. They have the control and kill switch on which apps and services are to be allowed on the platform and knowing Indian telecom providers, they would not bat an eyelid before killing anything that competes with whatever crappy services they offer.

Also, Internet.org does not support TLS (Transport Layer Security, think of the green HTTPS part you see on most websites) or encryption of data over web, so any conversation, sensitive message exchange or your personal details are more prone to get into wrong hands. It is not possible to run secure banking solutions, use it to say report a corrupt official without consequences like WikiLeaks etc. Internet.org in its current form cannot support secure email.

Internet.org is a poorly conceived solution to the problem of bridging the digital divide between the rich and less privileged ones. Leaving a billion people at the mercy of few for-profit companies that did not think twice before going ahead with stuff that violated net neutrality is scary. Had there not been protests, maybe I would have been paying a lot more to write this post.

To summarize, some of the major problems with Internet.org are -

  1. Makes people think Facebook is the internet. Thus, discovery and usefulness of the interent might get subdued under the social media effects of Facebook.
  2. No encryption when the whole world is moving to HTTPS only connections is like saying the poor do not deserve security and privacy.
  3. All traffic on internet.org passes through Facebook proxy servers, a company whose CEO famously said that it's early users were dumb fucks to trust it with their data
  4. The concentration of power in hands of telecom operators & Facebook will hamper innovation and stuff like blocking new technologies that clash with the telcos revenues, citing any stupid reason, will be frequent.

If there is one word that can be used to describe the collection of Indian telecom operators, it is 'bastards'. Checkout this idiotic ad of Reliance, an Indian telecom major showcasing RelianceNet or Internet.org or something. Yes, noodles eating youngsters in cities do not have $1 to recharge their phones with a data plan and will use Internet.org.

"Operators may decline services that cause undue strain to networks" - Internet.org T&C

With scumbags like Airtel present in India, we should not be jumping the gun right now and start dreaming of access to everyone.

What could have been some better solutions? Idea, an Indian major telecom company offers a [500 MB trial data pack for INR 25 ($0.4) in Bihar & Jharkhand circle. It is much more than money spent by most companies to drive a single app install using Facebook ads.

Similarly, the Government run BSNL is providing a 1GB 3G internet for INR 68 ($1) with a validity of 10 days. The pack for a validity of 19 days costs INR 139 ($2).

Mozilla in its blog post on Zero rating wrote about a model followed with Grameenphone in Bangladesh, where users are given 20 MB per day for free for watching a video advertisement.

The Google project Loon aims to use balloons positioned in stratosphere to enable internet delivery in remotest parts of the world.

While the underprivileged deserve much more than what is available, nobody should decide what exactly are their requirements. If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their rights to choose what they think is best for them. - Odisha Chief Minister to TRAI

The Internet is far more important that we realize, it is the collective voice of people. Let us just hope in a hurry to provide some sort of contraption under the name of the internet, we do not commit a blunder and leave the poor at the mercy of telecom operators and Facebook.

Cover image by Sumanth Garakarajula under CC License