Today, over two-thirds of the world’s population remains without access to the Internet. It is crucial to an increasingly global economy to bridge this vast digital divide by connecting the billions of people now without a voice. And, at first glance, organizations like Facebook’s Internet.org seem to strive to do just that. To date, their service has provided free access to a handful of cherry-picked web applications to thousands of users in parts of Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. But underneath the lofty goal to connect the rest of the world to the Internet, perhaps Internet.org has an ulterior, more manipulative motive that completely opposes the basic tenets of net neutrality.
Only recently have Internet.org’s intentions come under serious scrutiny with the service’s launch this February in India, where an ongoing national debate concerning net neutrality was sparked by a zero rating scheme proposed by provider Airtel Zero. Be it in India, the Philippines, or countless other launched sites, the organization has continued to put the interests of Facebook and a mysteriously selected set of local services above the rights of new Internet users. But the standard for bridging the digital divide cannot be a “poor Internet for poor people.” By curtailing the massive expanse of information and choice in services the Internet is known for and distilling it down to the thinnest slice of handpicked applications, Internet.org favors a select few and fails to live up to its lofty promise.
In a Facebook post meant to address net neutrality protests in India, Mark Zuckerberg wrote: “If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all. Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes — and it never will.” But unlike the nature of the net neutrality debates in the United States, the struggle for net neutrality in developing countries isn’t at all about fast lanes. Rather, the very idea of a zero-rating scheme applied to a select set of services is opposed to a neutral Internet in which all services are treated equally. Instead of leaving it up to local governments and mobile providers to decide the types of free services provided, Internet.org could sponsor an allotted data cap of free service for users and allow them to choose which services they use on their own.
Why avoid this seemingly simpler alternative? Perhaps because abiding by the tenets of net neutrality prevents Internet.org and its sponsor Facebook from shaping the expectations and experiences of the next billion people to connect to the Internet. Critics of Internet.org’s projects have raised concern that users do not even know that they are connected to the Internet. In a survey conducted by Quartz and Geopoll published in February, 11 percent of Indonesian Facebook users and 9 percent of Nigerian users responded that they use Facebook but not the Internet. As Helani Galpaya, a researcher with LIRNEasia who conducted a similar survey, put it, “It seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook.”
The fact that nearly a tenth of Internet.org users confuse the Internet with Facebook and the related services provided by Internet.org speaks to how misleading and dangerous development policy can be when net neutrality is ignored. To be sure, Internet.org has made strides in providing people with access they never had before. But when people are systematically deprived of the choice in services the Internet prides itself on, the kind of unrestricted, vibrant forum we know as the Internet today will not be the same Internet the next billion people to connect will have grown used to.
Zuckerberg has stated, “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.” But having those arguments, and in particular fighting for the rights of new Internet users to have the same choices we have, ensures that bridging the digital divide will not curtail an openly accessible Internet.
Archis R. Bhandarkar is a member of the Class of 2018.