Let’s use an analogy to better understand the context: Imagine that you live in a very small town — far away from the city — and not only are you poor, you also don’t have electricity installed in your house so you don’t have easy access to news, technological advances or information. In short, you know very little about what’s going on in the outside world.
Imagine that a private company comes to your town and installs a power grid for all the houses, but with the condition that you can only plug in the coffeemaker. Would you say you had access to the power grid? Would you consider being able to plug in the coffee maker puts you at the same level as me, where I have a TV, a fridge, a radio, and more? Does a coffeemaker give you access to knowledge and open the world to you?
Internet.org is a private company that wants to install the power grid in your town, but only allows you to plug in the coffeemaker.
Leaving the analogies aside, Internet.org is a mobile application that gives you “free access” to Facebook and certain other websites, decided in agreement between Internet.org and the governments of countries that accept this initiative. Access is granted through a specific mobile operator in each country. The initiative is being sold in Latin America – specifically through the Summit of the Americas – as a step towards prosperity and shrinking the digital divide, with the message that the poorest populations of these countries can connect to the Internet free of charge, and be on the same footing as the rest of the world. However, Internet.org has created a divide amongst the defenders of the web, similar to the many organizations that fight for freedom of expression, human rights, and net neutrality. The truth is that Internet.org is very far from being the Internet, it’s far from free, and it’s far from decreasing today’s digital divide in the region. To better understand, let’s examine the Internet, its service, and net neutrality.
The Internet is a platform that we have built together. It’s a group of services, infrastructure and applications that work in a decentralized manner – information is found in servers around the world. If you have a blog, webpage, or have edited a Wikipedia article, you’ve contributed to the Internet. If you are an Internet Service Provider (eg. Claro, Telmex), have servers, applications, or services on the cloud, you’ve contributed to the Internet. If you use software for videoconferences (eg. Skype), VOIP (eg. Viber), chat (eg. Whatsapp), or have email, you’ve used the Internet. The point is that the Internet is more than Facebook and 10 or 15 other websites.
Service includes everything that carries the connection to a location (a building, town, etc) — and because fiber optics cost money, the network cables and antennae cost money, moving data from cellular networks costs money, and maintaining all of this costs money – these charges show up on our monthly bill. Facebook has negotiated with governments to cover these costs, which is why the number of accessible websites is limited. However Facebook isn’t doing this for charity or humanitarian purposes, given that the company’s business model thrives on data generated from our navigation activities and the information we leave on its social network platform; in short, Facebook isn’t covering costs, but rather we are paying them with our navigation and consumption data. It’s like we’re turning the clock back to the days when we bartered and traded things instead of using currency.
The principle that allows us to enjoy the Internet as we know it – with a real Internet plan – is called net neutrality. Since Internet.org gives access only to Facebook and 10-15 other pages, these people can’t access services and websites that the rest of us can access; it therefore violates the principle of net neutrality, and the digital divide continues to thrive – but this time, the users of Internet.org believe they’re online when they’re not, while before they at least knew they weren’t online.
Regarding human rights, this is even more serious. Restricted navigation access makes it easier to track people, violate privacy, stifle freedom of expression, and commit mass surveillance of these groups of people. Additionally, there’s one thing that’s not very clear: what criteria is used to select the websites that are part of Internet.org? Why only one social networking site, if so many exist? If the initiative is aimed at benefitting the poorest sector of the population, will content specifically aimed at them be included? What happens to free market competition?