Why Facebook's internet.org initiative is bad even for developing countries like Malawi

Friday, May 15, 2015

Facebook's Internet.org initiative claims to have the objective of bringing basic Internet to everyone in the world. Through this initiative, a few select websites chosen by Facebook and its partners can be accessed via mobile internet for 'free'. The initiative has just been implemented in Malawi in partnership with two of Malawi's mobile phone operators - TNM and Airtel Malawi. At face value, it looks like a great initiative. However, personally, I have reservations on the initiative based on the following reasons.

First, the initiative violates the principle of Internet or net neutrality. For starters, Internet neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication (Wikipedia). The term was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003. Clearly, by selecting a few websites over others, Facebook and its partners are not treating all web content equally and therefore giving undue advantage to certain websites and services over others thus stifling innovation and competition. The Internet is what it is today because of innovation and competition. And if anything, this idea of filtering out some preferential websites and services over others is taking away the fundamental human right on the right to choose. Why should Facebook and its partners choose for 'poor' people what they can freely access?

Second, this initiative should not hoodwink the masses in developing countries like Malawi that it is a free service. In my opinion, this initiative gives Facebook and its partners undue advantage over others by cleverly putting themselves in a preferential basket. In other words, as more people access the Internet through this initiative, it increases Facebook's and its partners' advertising constituency. Facebook and its partners should have been honest on this other than operating on a gimmick of a charity banner.

Third, the very idea propelled that 'Internet.org by Facebook' is misleading. Internet is not Facebook and neither Facebook is Internet. The Internet should be free from any corporate control.

Fourth, what people need are affordable internet services for everyone in the world. And in this case, we are talking of affordable access to the whole of the Internet and not necessarily 'free' access to some select few websites chosen by Facebook and friends. In Malawi, Internet costs are unjustifiably very high but certainly what many want is affordable access to the whole of the Internet other than 'free' access to a select few websites whose content is not even local.

I rest my case.


Unknown Tuesday, May 19, 2015 3:35:00 PM  

Hi, I am traveling Africa, currently in Zambia, learning front end development along the way. I came across your blog post on biztechafrica and wanted to mention that I appreciate your input and see value in your opinion. I have stayed with many low income families along my journey through Africa, and it saddens me to see that they have access to the internet, yet all they (the people I met) use is Facebook and to play games. I hope the internet.org initiative doesn't make the problem even worse. I do also wonder if his point is to get even those who have never used the internet, to get more familiar with it until the point where they might be interested in seeing what else is out there on the internet besides FB. It seems FB believes some internet is better than no internet. However, first impressions of what the internet is best used for (information) may cause future adoption problems.

I am traveling through Malawi in about 2 weeks, I will message you directly as it would be nice to meet you along my travels! I would greatly enjoy hearing your perspective as a Malawi resident and your experience as a Computer Scientist there.

-Joanna (from California, USA)

Ben Jao Ming Saturday, May 23, 2015 10:05:00 PM  

Hi Bennett! Great post! I very much agree.

I had to share my thoughts on this, too, especially because I think there are some doubtful promises and solutions in what Facebook wants us to believe about their new "philanthropist" project.


Andy Friday, November 27, 2015 2:29:00 AM  

It's a very bad thing indeed. Facebook are already deeply rooted in Western society (though showing signs of weakening), it would be bad if they can get hold of future emerging economies.

With their internet.org, directories such as your own business directory could fall victim to more accessible, but less powerful ones in the way of a Facebook page. The "all things are equal" rule must be upheld, even if it's the case between internet access or none.

Ultimately, the internet will be widespread, but with Facebook's meddling it could be that their preferred sites get a huge unfair advantage.

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