“…It is possible to take net neutrality ‘too far’… If there’s a fisherman in the village who now has access to the Internet to sell some of his fish and provide for his family, no one gets hurt by that. That’s good…”
–Mark Zuckerberg, New York Times Interview
Pretty deep really. This author’s still trying to wrap his head around it. But aside from the fish, he’s thinking about a limited form of net neutrality with regards to his venture, Internet.org. A venture that provides free internet access for the poor, to places where the bandwidth makes you imagine hearing the squeaking and squawking of old modems. It’s a cool, even noble idea of giving access to the internet to people whose main priority is to simply get three meals a day. News and information matters too that could empower them and improve their lives.
But at the down and dirty business end of the venture, Internet.org otherwise known as Free Basics, is about signing up that large percentage of people who don’t have access to the internet. That’s a huge number of people signing up to a stripped-down version of Facebook in countries like India and other parts of the world with less than 3G access. It’s about the expansion of influence to that elusive percentage known as the poor. It’s about throwing a few text-based ads along the way. It’s also about signing up websites that meet a certain criteria. Internet.org is a venture between Facebook and other tech companies which include Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia, and Qualcomm. They partner with their host country’s telecoms providers to give affordable access to selected internet services such as Wikipedia, news, weather and other general information. But isn’t the idea of net neutrality supposed to be about getting past access to content and bandwidth boundaries?
Internet.org does get past bandwidth boundaries by giving internet access to people with minuscule bandwidths. But if Mark Zuckerberg does support net neutrality, the selectivity of Internet.org as many critics say betrays the idea. The site basically acts as a web portal with links to the services it has selected and is open to websites that meet a certain criteria. It’s an internet but not ‘the’ internet and not every website can enter thus violating net neutrality.
It surely does. It’s basically like a walled-garden app store for the poor. Internet services willing to participate will have to pass through any criteria laid down by Facebook and its other partners. But Zuckerberg’s defense, he launched the Internet.Org Platform that will enable developers of websites to connect to internet.org, still with some criteria to follow:
- Explore the entire internet (show the potential of the internet, give users a taste of what’s out there)
- Must have data efficiency or must be able to give out as much data as they can in limited bandwidth
After showing everyone a gate and a few house rules, Mark can’t exactly be accused of holding out on anyone. But Internet.Org still has the final say, after all, gardens still need to be curated, trimmed, pruned and weeded out. There can’t be too much freedom, too much net neutrality in the garden otherwise; it would be anarchy and chaos much like the real internet. Besides, Internet.Org is a scaled down, stripped down web portal for the poor and not everything can fit in there.
Also, the concept of it as a preview or lite version of the internet, its push or its goal to usher people to the real internet, to entice with a carrot, is still similar to denying people access. That they would eventually need to pay to have real access, get Netflix or HD quality movies and images. Lossless music or high-quality MP3 instead of MIDI. If you’re really sincere about giving everyone a free and net neutral internet, then build the infrastructure and somehow give the poor people a shot. Something along the lines of a free public school digital library or public internet café for poor kids to do research.
But, the whole thing is after all, his idea. It’s Mark’s vision of a free or more affordable, internet and whether it’s net neutral or not, credit is due for his effort in giving the little folks a taste of what’s out there. Providing the internet to countries that are even alien to the concept of net neutrality, where net neutrality doesn’t really matter or cannot be applied. In such cases, net neutrality can take a back seat for a while as far as Mark’s concerned as long as more people get connected and later yearn to share what they’re having for lunch with the world.