Just how benevolent is the internet.org project?

Mark Zuckerberg probably thought the world would bow down to him when Facebook announced the Internet.org project. The idea of bringing internet access to those in developing parts of the world seems, on the face of it, to be something of an exercise in altruism. Of course, it's not quite that simple.

Many companies complain that the project goes against the idea of net neutrality - a claim that Zuckerberg vehemently denies. But now the vocal opposition to Internet.org is getting louder. Privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has several concerns with the project, and a collective of 67 digital rights groups has signed a letter to the Facebook founder expressing concerns about the approach Internet.org is taking.

Complaints about Internet.org being anti-net neutrality are not the only criticisms being levelled at the project. There is little to argue with about the principle of the venture - bringing free internet access to those who would otherwise be denied access is certainly a good thing - but there are serious concerns about the way it has been tackled. EFF says that there is a danger that it "could end up becoming a ghetto for poor users instead of a stepping stone to the larger Internet".

In a bid to ensure that the more basic "feature phones" that are likely to be used to access the internet in some parts of the world are not overwhelmed, Internet.org's guidelines state that bandwidth usage of sites and services should be kept to an absolute minimum. While this makes sense to a certain extent, it does create a two-tier internet: a light, limited version for Internet.org users, and the web that everyone else has access to. Of course some internet access is better than no internet access, but there are also concerns about privacy and security.

The way in which Internet.org traffic is routed through specially designated proxy servers means that it is not possible to access HTTPS site. You read that correctly: Internet.org will not permit users to access secure websites - it is also not possible to use TLS or SSL encryption. With all of the interest in privacy that came about following Edward Snowden's NSA revelations, this seems like an astonishingly bad idea - not that surveillance revelations were needed to make it a bad idea. Why should users have to endure lower security simply because they are accessing the internet for free?

EFF - and others - are also concerned that Facebook is essentially setting itself up as a gatekeeper for the internet. As the group explains:

By setting themselves up as gatekeepers for free access to (portions of) the global Internet, Facebook and its partners have issued an open invitation for governments and special interest groups to lobby, cajole or threaten them to withhold particular content from their service. In other words, Internet.org would be much easier to censor than a true global Internet.

The letter to Facebook expresses concerns that "access for impoverished people is construed as justification for violations of net neutrality".

Speaking to the BBC, a Facebook spokesman defended the company's blueprint for free internet access:

We are convinced that as more and more people gain access to the internet, they will see the benefits and want to use even more services. We believe this so strongly that we have worked with operators to offer basic services to people at no charge, convinced that new users will quickly want to move beyond basic services and pay for more diverse, valuable services.

At the moment, Facebook has not expressed any interest in trying to control the type of content that is made available through Internet.org, but the technical limitations - no support for video, a ban on large images, no VoIP calls, and a lack of JavaScript support - are seen as being just too limiting. As EFF puts it, it is "less than a true Internet service, but also endanger[s] people's privacy and security".

Effectively acting as a filter to the internet, supported Internet.org sites and services can only be accessed through dedicated Android apps, Facebook itself, and Opera Mini. In order to access content that does not come from Internet.org partners, and to overcome the restrictions Internet.org imposes, users will have to pay for use of a data connection. This is something that net neutrality proponents and equality advocates take issue with.

The letter says:

It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services.

This is not a debate that shows any sign of letting up in the near future. Facebook remains adamant that the way it is going about things is the right way, but until privacy, security, and net neutrality concerns are addressed, there are many groups who will continue to take issue with Internet.org - however well-intentioned it may be.

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