Mark Zuckerberg probably thought the world would bow down to him when Facebook announced the Internet.org project (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab) - a claim that Zuckerberg vehemently denies (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab) 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:
The letter to Facebook expresses concerns that "access for impoverished people is construed as justification for violations of net neutrality".
Speaking to the BBC (opens in new tab), a Facebook spokesman defended the company's blueprint for free internet access:
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:
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.