Why Internet.Org Is Not (Necessarily) A Bad Thing

This is a repost. Since writing this in June 2015 on LinkedIn, India, Internet.Org's biggest potential market at the time, has run Internet.Org out of the country. I respected the ease at which Zuckerberg accepted this failure, but I don't think he should give up. I still stand by my favourable arguments below about Internet.Org because I actually feel it's a worthy project; but it needs to be rebranded from being charitable to being a profitable venture cause there is nothing wrong with making profit along with improved social development. 

Practically all the news I have heard about internet.org is negative, except if it's from Facebook. The criticisms abound - from issues with net neutrality (where every data should be treated equal) to allowing access to only certain sites. Mark Zuckerberg has had to defend his project over and over again.

But is internet.org really as big a bad wolf as everyone seems to want it to be? Let's look at what it is, some arguments about it, and why I believe internet.org is actually a noteworthy venture.

What is Internet.org?

On the internet.org website, it says 'making the Internet affordable'. What they aim to do is basically enable people in developing economies to be connected to the internet. They are doing this in three ways: Providing free access to basic internet services (read basic sites, which have been adapted to use as little data as possible); exploring technologies and business models that can make internet provision more affordable in their Connectivity Lab; and helping developers create applications that can work better in different parts of developing economies in their Innovation Lab

How does it work?

Of course, the contention for everyone is the first activity - providing free access to basic internet services. How does this work exactly?

Facebook collaborates with technology firms (e.g. Ericsson, Samsung) and mobile operators in the countries. They arrange for certain sites to be accessed via mobile app, free of charge for the user. These sites or apps have to be 'watered down' to minimise the use of data. That means no high resolution pictures, no videos, no voice chats, nothing heavy. A typical site that is allowed is Wikipedia.

So what's the problem?

People have raised many issues about Internet.org, but let's focus on the biggest three:

Restricted access to the Internet: There have been complaints about Internet.org blocking access to most of the internet, and so restricting freedom of information. Currently, a few apps/sites are allowed, including Facebook (of course), Wikipedia (no question), Accuweather, some news sites, and Facts for Life health site. This article described this restriction as a 'walled garden'. But on the other hand, this article aptly described this basic service as the 'toll free numbers' we see in mobile networks.

The service isn't actually free, it's free for the user, but Facebook would have to pay the mobile operators for the data. This isn't a new concept by any means; and because it's toll free, it makes sense to not be applicable across board to all possible sites. Why should Facebook be castigated for choosing what to pay for?

While some may say that this is also against net neutrality, we need to realize that allowances may be made based on context and situation. Where this may work in developed economies, if net neutrality is applied in some developing economies, nobody would be able to access any part of the Internet because of data cost and insufficient infrastructure. In my book, accessing a bit of the Internet is still better than accessing none.

Nothing actually stops people from accessing the whole of the internet without Internet.org. But if you look at Internet.org as a freemium service, it makes sense. It's like a 'try it and if it works for you, you can spend money to access the whole thing without Internet.org'.

There are more important things than connectivity, e.g. health: A usual complaint, as famously made by Bill Gates (but for Google) is that services targeted at developing economies should consider things like health first, before connectivity. But the truth is, many development foundations are already targeting issues like health and agriculture. These services have to be deployed all together (in a mix/synergy that works together) as opposed to in tandem. When this connectivity is provided, it could go a long way to improving health, and complementing the efforts of government and foundations for these issues.

For example, providing access to markets for local farmers? Farmers could access the Internet through Internet.org for the latest market prices. Helping farmers improve farming and storage methods? Farmers could access the Internet for how-tos, instructions, etc. A community tackling malaria? People could access the Internet for symptoms, home/local remedies, etc. Students working on their assignments and learnings? They can access Wikipedia or other sites for topics.

They are endless ways that accessing the Internet can enable people in developing economies help themselves and become/remain empowered through information! The development sector needs to realize that technology and information plays a vital role in success of their projects.

Lack of transparency in Facebook's motivations: Many people have stated concerns over why Facebook is working on Internet.org in the first place. For one, Facebook is a large corporation with huge, and scary, amounts of personal data. Now they want to capture more? What world domination plans does Facebook have, which they are disguising as not-for-profit?

But despite Facebook being so successful, their rate of success is slowing down as they reach maturity. So, they are doing what any sensible business would do - looking to new markets. The trend now is for global businesses to access emerging markets, and Facebook is doing just that.

I admit that they should have been upfront about this - that their long-term plan is to capture this market. It would be more believable and understandable for them to do this, and publicly accept that they are taking a long term view of making profit through data, instead of posing Internet.org as a not-for-profit project. Most of the backlash they are receiving now could have been avoided.

So how can Facebook deal with this backlash?

Facebook can move forward with Internet.org more smoothly if they admit publicly that they have long-term plans to make profit, through advertising, in emerging markets, from the Internet.org venture. There is really nothing wrong with this; after all, the best way to create value is to balance economic, social and environmental factors. Internet.org can help Facebook strike such a balance. No for-profit business is fully altruistic - they were not built to be.

A second challenge that Facebook would have to deal with is to educate the users of Internet.org on why they even need it. This may be one of the biggest hurdles and would need a lot of awareness campaigns and trainings. Facebook may have to expand their Internet.org partners from mainly giant tech and local telecoms partners, to the public and development sectors in their target countries. They would also need to encourage local content providers to develop apps (e.g. health apps, education apps, etc.) that can be used via Internet.org.