[Note added 4 August 2016: Since I wrote this, Internet.org has expanded into a service called Free Basics. All the criticisms below apply to that as well. — Doc]
By nature it is as neutral as gravity. It favors nothing and is not partial to anything. Yes, there are exceptions to that rule, in the way Net access is provisioned, for example; but the basic nature of the Net — as a free, open and neutral shared space — is by now obvious to pretty much everybody who doesn’t have an interest in making it less.
Internet.org calls itself “a Facebook-led initiative bringing together technology leaders, non-profits and local communities to connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have Internet access.” But what it offers is not the Internet, but a sphinctered fraction of it: Facebook plus a few chosen others.
This is pure misdirection: a private part masked as a public whole. And it’s not fooling anybody. Especially India. See here, here, here, here, here, here — and every other place you’ll find piles of stories about it. (Start with the Critique section of the Wikipedia article on Internet.org, and a search for India+Facebook+Internet.org.)
India is rejecting Internet.org for one simple reason: They know sphincternet ≠ Internet, and that the sphinctered Net is not Neutral, meaning not the real thing.
Naturally, Mark Zuckerberg disagrees, and explains how in this post on the matter, which went up yesterday, and I’ll respond to, piece by piece:
Over the past week in India, there has been a lot written about Internet.org and net neutrality. I’d like to share my position on these topics here for everyone to see.
First, I’ll share a quick story. Last year I visited Chandauli, a small village in northern India that had just been connected to the internet.
In a classroom in the village, I had the chance to talk to a group of students who were learning to use the internet. It was an incredible experience to think that right there in that room might be a student with a big idea that could change the world — and now they could actually make that happen through the internet.
Those students should know the whole Net. Not just a subset of it.
The internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress. It gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities. It gives voice to the voiceless in our society, and it connects people with vital resources for health and education.
I believe everyone in the world deserves access to these opportunities.
Fine. Then either give them the whole thing, or call what you give them something else that’s clearly less: Facebook+, perhaps.
In many countries, however, there are big social and economic obstacles to connectivity. The internet isn’t affordable to everyone, and in many places awareness of its value remains low. Women and the poor are most likely to be excluded and further disempowered by lack of connectivity.
The Internet itself has no cost: on purpose. At its base is a protocol that nobody owns, everybody can use, and anybody can improve. (Not that anybody has yet — or ever will.) That’s one of the features of its inherent neutrality.
Yes, there are first-time and maintenance costs for the wires and waves that carry its bits. But, as Steve Kamman explains, “Bandwidth is dirt cheap. And bog-standard… This isn’t like electricity. There’s no power plant on the other end burning fuel to deliver those bits. Bits are nearly weightless and cost accordingly.”
Steve’s case is for where the Net ends up, everywhere: the effect implicit in its cause. Think about how to make that happen. Trust me: it’ll be good for Facebook too.
This is why we created Internet.org, our effort to connect the whole world. By partnering with mobile operators and governments in different countries, Internet.org offers free access in local languages to basic internet services in areas like jobs, health, education and messaging. Internet.org lowers the cost of accessing the internet and raises the awareness of the internet’s value. It helps include everyone in the world’s opportunities.
But it’s not the whole Internet. It’s what you and your partners, in an exclusive and non-neutral way, have decided to provide.
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. In India, we’ve already rolled out free basic services on the Reliance network to millions of people in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana. And we just launched in Indonesia on the Indosat network today.
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.
Zero-rating, or “toll-free data,” means not charging for some stuff on the Net, while charging the same fees for the rest. Simply put, it’s a form of price discrimination. Here’s what Wikipedia says about its reception and impact :
Zero-rating certain services, fast lanes and sponsored data clearly have their benefits for users of the subsidized services, but have also been criticised as anti-competitive and limiting open markets. As many new internet and content services are launched targeting primarily mobile usage, and further adoption of internet connectivity globally (including broadband in rural areas of developed countries) relies heavily on mobile, zero-rating has also been regarded as a threat to the open internet, which is typically available via fixed line networks with unlimited usage tariffs or flat rates. The Wikimedia Foundation and Facebook have been specifically criticized for their zero-rating programs, to further strengthen incumbent mobile network operators and limit consumer rights to an open internet. (That’s as of today.)
Whatever else it is, it’s not neutral.
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.
To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.
Useful, yes. Neutral, no.
Non-neutrality is like Potter Stewart’s definition of porn: “I know it when I see it.” Which India does.
Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes — and it never will.
It just doesn’t carry them. It says “My way or no highway.”
We’re open for all mobile operators and we’re not stopping anyone from joining.
The Internet is not what just mobile operators carry.
We want as many internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected.
That’s fine. But what they provide won’t be the Internet if they don’t carry the whole thing. It will be a sampler box of rocks rather than all of geology.
Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity. Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected.
There wouldn’t be an argument if you didn’t call this thing “Internet.org,” and if you didn’t represent a few Internet services as the whole thing. But you do, and that’s why you’re having trouble.
Every person in the world deserves access to the opportunities the internet provides. And we can all benefit from the perspectives, creativity and talent of the people not yet connected.
We have a historic opportunity to connect billions of more people worldwide for the first time. We should work together to make that happen now.
Fine. But make clear that what you’re offering isn’t the Internet, but a bunch of free services also found on the real thing.
Below that post are a zillion comments, some of which Mark answers. Here is the first Q&A:
Ritesh Pandya: We really appreciate your initiative on making the internet accessible to most remote part of the world, but the only question is why access only to selective websites and not all on internet.org??
Mark Zuckerberg: It’s too expensive to make the whole internet free. Mobile operators spend tens of billions of dollars to support all of internet traffic. If it was all free they’d go out of business. But by offering some basic services, it’s still affordable for them and it’s valuable and free for everyone to use.
But it’s not the Net. It’s just a set of services that also happen to be on the Net.
The Internet is free. That’s its nature. So stop confusing access with the Net itself, and a few services with the whole thing. Nobody’s buying it.
[Later, May 4…] Wired says Zuckerberg has “expanded” Internet.org to include more stuff. In other words, he’s dilated the sphincter.