On Facebook’s Internet.org false promises of a “poor man’s internet”

What started as a quick discussion on Facebook has turned into a great guest post by Hani Morsi.
Hani is currently writing up his PhD at IDS Sussex on the virtual political sphere in post-Mubarak Egypt, blogs on ICT4D and digital development and can be contacted on Twitter as well.
In his post he reminds us once again that critical development engagement is much needed as global digital corporations quite literally spread their wings into the developing world and will shape the Internet and digital communication much faster and more thoroughly as researchers, activists or policy-makers are able to respond.

Last Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook’s founder and CEO) announced the construction of Aquila, an unmanned aircraft that will be a linchpin to Facebook’s Internet.org project. The technology behind Aquila is rather impressive: It has a wingspan comparable to that of a jetliner yet weighs less than a car, and uses lasers to beam internet access down to off-the-grid communities from high altitude. There are other neat technical details that make Aquila a technological wonder that opens up thrilling possibilities for the future of connectivity. What is even more exciting is that Facebook’s Internet.org is not the only project of its kind: there is also Project Loon, a similar initiative by Google to provide Internet access to remote areas using high-altitude balloons. Wikipedia announced Wikipedia Zero, an initiative to provide all of Wikipedia on mobile phones by cooperating with cellular network operators in the developing world. There is also the lesser-known Outernet project, intended to provide access to some Internet content by using small low orbit satellites (the latter being under heavy criticism for being vaporware and overly ambitious plans and technical ambiguity).

It is hard not to get caught up in techno-fetishism watching the glitzy publicity videos and presentations about Internet.org and other “tech-for-good” initiatives. Nevertheless, the oft-heralded great potential of the Internet as the ultimate “flattener” is yet to be realized, and systemic inequalities still pervade our world. All too often, our eagerness to renew hopes about the promise of technology overrides our skepticism of what Yevgeny Morozov calls technological “solutionism” - which is exactly what Internet.org is, but that is not the only problem with it.

Facebook wants to bring the Internet to people without access, and consequently allowing these masses to benefit from all the advantages of connectivity; from access to knowledge to more sustainable livelihoods, and that’s a laudable aim. The obvious question we should ask here is: what is in it for Facebook? This is not to imply that big technology companies cannot also be do-gooders, but when we think of how much influence companies like Facebook and Google have over the development of Internet-based technologies, this critical question can be rephrased to be more specific: What does it mean for the Internet?

Beyond the praiseworthy premise of Internet.org, it is no humanitarian mission. Internet.org is Facebook's attempt to compartmentalize the Internet and dominate the online advertising market in developing countries for many years to come, all under the facade of techno-altruism. With this project, Facebook essentially constructs a walled garden of pseudo-access where it is the gatekeeper of networked services. And not only that, Internet.org does not allow encrypted content in a time where the importance of encryption cannot be more apparent.

If Facebook truly wants to do good and make the Internet more accessible to the poor, it should not offer a scaled-down, crippled and encryption-less “poor-man’s Internet”, but come up with ways to provide low-cost access to the actual, open Internet to remote and rural areas. Judging by the technology behind connectivity-beaming drones like Aquila, the technical means to do this are there. If we are to learn from the past, solutionism is not a pathway to development, and to see evidence of this we can look back on projects like the One Laptop Per Child initiative.
Facebook and Google want to bring connectivity to the next billion, and aside from the problematic consequences of Internet.org for net neutrality and privacy, we should also remember that poverty, inequalities and exclusion are very complex phenomena, and with dynamics and characteristics which are not inherently technological and not solely dependent on connectivity.


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