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by Nicholas Pell
Not everyone is a fan of Facebook's latest plan to connect the entire world through a new initiative called Internet.org, which will provide free Internet access
Facebook is looking to connect the entire world through a new initiative called Internet.org, which will provide free Internet access to corners of the world where some people don't even know what the Internet is. And while few might take issue with connecting some of the most impoverished people in the world to the Internet, many critics aren't sure about Zuckerberg and Facebook being the ones to do it.
Internet.org is a partnership between telecom giants Telenor, Samsung, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Ericsson. It's currently operating in six countries but looking to expand to 100 by the end of the year. The criticism goes back to a debate all too familiar to American audiences: net neutrality. Critics say that Facebook is restricting content to sites that won't pay to play, sometimes in violation of local net neutrality laws. Still, isn't some Internet access better than none at all?
The question is whether Internet.org is a way for Facebook and its partners to get more clients, or if it's a sincere path toward a more connected world. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called the partnership "a ghetto for poorer users." But Facebook has defended itself by publishing clear guidelines on how data-efficient websites can join in and become accessible to hundreds of millions who previously had no Internet access at all. And, in Facebook's defense, it's not actually providing "free" Internet access. It's paying for Internet access for other people. So, naturally, the company wants to keep costs down.
What's more, when you look at the sites Facebook currently allows free access to (BBC News, Accuweather, Wikipedia and a health site run by UNICEF), it's hard not to wonder if there isn't some element of sour grapes on the part of critics. On the other hand, even while the aforementioned websites are legitimately useful, a bigger problem might be a lack of access to homegrown start-up content. That's been the main complaint coming out of India's tech community, which harbors some of the harshest critics.
Yet another argument against Internet.org has to do with privacy and security -- no small issue in places like Pakistan that aren't known for their outstanding human rights records. One of Facebook's requirements for Internet.org is that they not allow encryption of any kind. That means no HTTPS, no TLS and no SSL. It's not just a potentially repressive government that Internet.org's users have to worry about; standards of security are already rather lax, so users might be opening themselves up to identity theft.
On the one hand, Internet.org offers the Internet to people who otherwise would probably never get to access it -- a potentially life-changing development. But on the other hand, it may need a fair amount of improvement before the initiative is ideal.
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