Dear Mark Zuckerberg,
We, the undersigned, share a common concern about the launch and expansion of Facebook’s Internet.org platform and its implications for the open Internet around the world.
…In its present conception, Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, equality of opportunity, security, privacy, and innovation.
…We support the goal of bringing affordable Internet access to the two-thirds of the world who currently lack it. Many of us have been working for years on initiatives to bridge the digital divide…we have always sought to provide non-discriminatory access to the full open Internet, without privileging certain applications or services over others and without compromising the privacy and security of users.
Internet.org appears to be taking another route.
Facebook’s initiative to bring Internet to the two-thirds of the world lacking access has been met with a hearty degree of skepticism.
Skepticism might be an understatement.
In fact, the accusations against Facebook have become so widespread, even the inventor of the World Wide Web himself, Tim Berners-Lee, chimed in.
“In the particular case of somebody who’s offering… something which is branded internet, (if) it’s not internet, then you just say no. No it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something … [only] giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards.”
Net neutrality refers to open architecture of the internet, such that internet service providers (ISPs) offer all applications and services equally. Critics of Internet.org complain that because Facebook is partnering with ISPs to offer some – but not all – services for free (otherwise known as zero rating), Facebook is therefore destroying freedom of expression and stunting innovation.
Zuckerberg published a post defending his brainchild.
We’ve made some great progress, and already more than 800 million people in 9 countries can now access free basic services through Internet.org. We’re proud of this progress. But some people have criticized the concept of zero-rating that allows Internet.org to deliver free basic internet services, saying that offering some services for free goes against the spirit of net neutrality. I strongly disagree with this. We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It’s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it. But net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist.
The underlying issue: free is a difficult business model.
Is Facebook master of the Internet with an impregnable market position, or, do these criticisms represent the beginning of the end of an era, such that a new social media phenomenon will soon emerge?
Whether or not Facebook will be replaced in the next decade by a new sensation (in a leaked email, Snapchat’s CEO, Evan Spiegal, asserted his belief that Facebook would soon suffer a similar fate to Yahoo), the Internet.org allegations seem overly harsh.
Among other comments on Facebook,
“The Internet was never meant to be controlled by a selfish few. Your selfish attempt will end in failure, Zuckerberg.”
“Zuckerberg turns out to be just another sell out creep. It’s ridiculous to talk about freedom in a society dominated by huge corporations. What kind of freedom is there inside a corporation? When enormous, private, tyrannical institutions are granted the same rights as – or more rights than – human beings, freedom becomes something of a joke. Tell Zuckerberg to bugger off.”
“Zuckerberg has become that which he has professed to hate.”
The list endures.
Fundamental Issue #1: Who Owns The Internet?
The Internet originated primarily as a U.S. government military application to transmit information. At its onset, the backbone of the Internet was APRANET and then DARPANET, created by a branch of the United States Department of Defense to transport traffic between different computer systems. Today, upstream Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) together provide the backbone. The entire system is overseen by multifarious entities and government agencies. As such, while many organizations and services are responsible for the structure and efficacy of the Internet, no sole organization or service actually owns the entire Internet.
Fundamental Issue #2: Is Some Better Than None?
Those who have none would seemingly contend, “yes”.
We must not lose sight of the fact that Facebook is a for-profit company. Generally speaking, the only economic practicality behind offering something for free is to offer such good or service in a limited fashion in hopes of receiving a fee for the full version or related products at a later point in time. Marketing gurus would also point to an additional potential success of the “free” business model: augmented brand loyalty is likely to later increase profitability.
The only legitimate allegation against Facebook is that the company is likely seeking a later profit in addition to its purported social mission. I would personally contend this should not be a criticism at all, because, as we have examined in great depth, “doing good” and “making money” need not be mutually exclusive. However, I can understand an annoyance regarding Facebook’s “holier-than-thou” advertising. Why does Internet.org need so much publicity in the developed world if the intention is to increase access for those in the emerging countries?
Nonetheless, revenue is required for the development of infrastructure. Free goods become overused and destroyed whether it be air, water, climate, or bandwidth. When the air is free, carbon pollutes it. Free resources and free internet both run the same catastrophic risk: overuse can lead to destruction and inefficiency.
Perhaps Facebook is simply using zero rating in attempts to simultaneously bridge the gap and land close to the efficient frontier of resource allocation.
Featured Photograph by Charis Tsevis.