On a good day, Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) Internet.org is a way for people -- typically the less fortunate -- to access the Internet for free. But on its worst days, critics say the free Internet access is a way for Facebook to build a walled content garden, created by itself and its partners, which promotes Facebook and keeps users off of the rest of the Internet.
Through an Android app and website, Facebook says Internet.org is attempting to get 4 billion people connected to the Internet (albeit in a limited capacity) in an effort to help raise them out of poverty. But last week a long list of activist groups, associations, and organizations sent an open letter to Facebook highlighting why they oppose how Facebook is going about trying to do that.
So why is giving free Internet to countries with little connectivity so controversial? Let's look at three main arguments against the service to find out:
Argument 1: Content isn't king
The most glaring issue with Internet.org is that people who tap into Internet.org will get a curated version of the Internet in which only certain websites are available. Users can step outside of these pre-selected websites, but other sites won't be covered under Internet.org's free data.
As a result, critics say Internet.org doesn't adhere to the net neutrality philosophy, under which all (legal) online content is equally accessible.
This argument comes just after the Federal Communications Commission ruled in favor of net neutrality in the U.S., saying that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can't charge more money to companies to deliver content faster. This essentially makes all online content equally accessible.
While Internet.org isn't part of the FCC's ruling as it's offered outside of the U.S., the public is already hyper aware of net neutrality at the moment, and Facebook's new initiative seems to go against that tide.
But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a video this month that providing people access to the full Internet would be too costly, so the company has to offer up a simpler version. That means only certain websites get included on Internet.org, while others don't.
To help quash the idea that Internet.org is just a walled garden of information, Facebook opened up the Internet.org app to developers earlier this month so they can submit their own apps and websites for inclusion in the service.
Of course, Facebook still decides what gets approved, and ultimately what users have access to, but it is worth noting that Internet.org is still in its early stages. The company is showing that it's willing to expand the content people have access to on Internet.org -- even if it's still not enough for the critics.
Argument 2: It's not very secure, or private
Right now Internet.org doesn't allow some of the standard website security protocols like Transport Layer Security (TLS), Secure Socket Layer (SSL), or HTTPS.
According to that open letter I mentioned above, "This inherently puts users at risk, because their web traffic will be vulnerable to malicious attacks and government eavesdropping." The group went on to note that some Interent.org users don't understand how their data is being used and may not be able to give proper consent for its use."
To its credit, Facebook says SSL and TLS encryption will be available in the Internet.org Android app soon, and possibly added for the web-based version in the future. But at the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a post, most low-end Android devices (presumably what many Internet.org users will have) won't be able to tap into some of those security measures.
The foundation said that Internet.org "continues to impose conditions and restraints that not only make it something less than a true Internet service, but also endanger people's privacy and security."
While Facebook is adding more security for Interent.org users, the company appears to disagree with its critics over privacy. Zuckerberg mentioned in his video that users' data is only used to anonymously track what content people access so it can determine what services to offer them in the future.
Argument 3: The content could be censored by governments
Critics mention that Internet.org's website curation lends itself quite nicely to governments that might want to control what users see. Again, the group of organizations speaking out against Internet.org wrote,
"Facebook appears to be putting itself in a position whereby governments could apply pressure to block certain content, or even, if users must log in for access, block individual users. Facebook would find itself mediating the real surveillance and censorship threats to politically active users in restrictive environments."
Indeed, there is already precedence for this. Back in 2010, Google (Google!) essentially stepped out of the search business in China because the Chinese government put far too much pressure on the search giant to censor what users had access to.
Google's senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer, David Drummond, said at the time, "The Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a nonnegotiable legal requirement."
It would be a bit naive to think that the same censorship pressures couldn't be applied to Internet.org, especially when the service is essentially deciding which content users have access to already.
But let's be fair about this point, because this hasn't happened yet on Internet.org, nor is Facebook likely willing to be the content puppet of repressive governments. Keep in mind that Internet.org already offers access to sites with massive amounts of information some governments might not agree with, like Wikipedia.org.
So while it's certainly possible for Facebook to feel pressure from some governments in the future, it simply doesn't appear to be the case right now.
The bottom line
It's easy to criticize out-of-the-box ideas like Internet.org, and Facebook is certainly receiving its fair share of bad press. I think it's good to have a healthy dash of skepticism for projects like this -- but balance it with the optimism it deserves.
At its core, Facebook is trying to help people get out of poverty using the skills that Facebook knows the most about -- the Internet. Whether this works or not is an entirely different story. Sure there are problems that need to be addressed, and for the most part Facebook appears to be addressing them. But faulting the company for taking steps that could help people live better lives isn't beneficial for anyone.