Global digital rights groups say Facebook's Internet.org increases inequality

The groups are objecting to Internet.org's "walled garden" of services offered without data charges

Internet.org's offer of access to selected websites and services without data charges has been criticized by over 60 digital rights groups around the world for, among other things, increasing inequality while undermining net neutrality.

The organizations, some of whom have worked in the area of providing connectivity to the poor, on Monday wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, expressing their concern that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full Internet, even though it only provides access to a limited number of services that are approved by Facebook and local Internet service providers.

Backed by Facebook and some other companies, Internet.org aims to extend Internet connectivity to the underprivileged around the world. But its program to offer select websites and services, including those of Facebook, at no data charges to users, was criticized in India for creating "walled gardens." The program has been launched so far in some countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

In response to the criticism, Internet.org earlier this month opened its platform to any low-bandwidth online service that meets its technical guidelines for running on basic phones. Websites will not have to pay to be included, and operators won't charge developers for the data people use for their services.

The operators will bear the cost of the free access in the hope that customers will down the line move to paid services to access the broader Internet, Zuckerberg said in a video. Facebook claims that it is not promoting Internet.org for the money, and is even not showing ads to its users.

But the groups from diverse countries, including the U.S., the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, Austria, Indonesia, Uganda, Colombia and India, oppose the no data charges or zero-rating of a specific set of services by providers as discriminatory, which is the reason they are banned or restricted in countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Chile.

Zero-rating agreements "endanger freedom of expression and equality of opportunity" as they let service providers decide which Internet services will be privileged over others, according to the groups. Internet.org misleadingly labels zero-rated applications as the Internet, although users only get access to a tiny part of it, according to letter.

In its technical guidelines, Internet.org has asked that the mobile websites that want to come aboard the platform should work in the absence of security features like SSL, TLS and HTTPS, which the groups said put users at risk of malicious attacks and government surveillance. They are also concerned about a lack of transparency about how user data will be used by Internet.org and its ISP partners.

The groups have also criticized Internet.org's strategy of giving users a taste of connectivity in the hope that they will purchase data plans, as it does not acknowledge that millions of people can't afford the plans. "These new users could get stuck on a separate and unequal path to Internet connectivity, which will serve to widen -- not narrow -- the digital divide," the groups wrote in the letter.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, although not a signatory to the letter, said in a blog post Monday that it is confident that it would be possible to provide a limited free Internet access service that is secure and doesn't rely on Facebook and its partners "to maintain a central list of approved sites."

The service offered by Internet.org would be more susceptible to censorship than the open Internet, as Facebook and its partners acting as gatekeepers would be more vulnerable to lobbying or even threats from governments and special interest groups to withhold certain content from its users, EFF said.

Facebook said in a statement that the company and its critics share a common vision of helping more people gain access to the broadest possible range of experiences and services on the Internet.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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