Internet.org, a project by Facebook which aims to bring data connectivity to masses is having a tough time convincing the world its intention and importance. The project was launched in India by the social juggernaut in February in collaboration with telecommunication company RCom. But since the launch, the company has received severe backlash, forcing the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come out and defend the project. But things are far from sorted.
After the backlash in India, the company is now receiving disapproval from groups in Indonesia, Colombia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe among many other places. Sixty people from digital-rights groups in 28 countries or regions around the world have come together to sign a joint letter addressed to Zuckerberg expressing their dissent to Internet.org’s practices on fairness, privacy and security.
“It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services.” the open letter reads. “Further, we are deeply concerned that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full Internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of Internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs. In its present conception, Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.”
“We urge Facebook to assert its support for a true definition of net neutrality in which all applications and services are treated equally and without discrimination — especially in the majority world, where the next three billion Internet users are coming online — and to address the significant privacy and security flaws inherent in the current iteration of Internet.org,” the letter further reads. “Zero rating is currently Internet.org’s basic model: Facebook is partnering with ISPs around the world to offer access to certain Internet applications to users at no cost. These agreements endanger freedom of expression and equality of opportunity by letting service providers decide which Internet services will be privileged over others, thus interfering with the free flow of information and people’s rights vis-a-vis networks.”
For Internet.org, Facebook partners with wireless carriers and content and other service providers to offer an app which provides users in that particular network with free access to select services. While privacy watchdogs have had always shown their concern towards the project, stating the possibility of it violating net neutrality, it wasn’t until earlier this year that Facebook received flak in an unprecedented number when it launched the service in India. This criticism pressured many partner companies who later pulled their services from Internet.org project, saying that their company supports net neutrality.
On a post, Zuckerberg defended the project, saying that this project should and must coexist with net neutrality. “If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all,” he noted. Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, the watchguards of the internet strongly disagree with him. On a blog post titled “Internet.org Is Not Neutral, Not Secure, and Not the Internet,” EFF, an international non-profit digital rights group strongly condemns Internet.org.
After receiving flak in India, Facebook opened the Internet.org program to all interested companies provided they complied with Internet.org’s technical guidelines. Some of the requirements that it has put forward includes the images, videos, VoIP calls, Flash, Java applets and other elements to weigh less than 1Mb in size. EFF finds this newly imposed requirements absurd. “We agree that some Internet access is better than none, and if that is what Internet.org actually provided—for example, through a uniformly rate-limited or data-capped free service—then it would have our full support,” it noted. “But it doesn’t. Instead, it continues to impose conditions and restraints that not only make it something less than a true Internet service, but also endanger people’s privacy and security.”
The organization points out that this unwittingly also puts users’ security and privacy at risk. “That’s because the technical structure of Internet.org prevents some users from accessing services over encrypted HTTPS connections(…) A critical component of Internet.org is its proxy server, which traffic must pass through for the zero-rating and the interstitial warning to work correctly. Some devices, like Android phones running Internet.org’s app, have the technical ability to make encrypted HTTPS connections through the proxy server without becoming vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks or exposing any data (beyond the domain being requested) to Facebook. Internet.org’s Android app can also automatically bring up the interstitial warning directly on the phone by using the app to analyze links (as opposed to Facebook serving the warning via its proxy server).”
The problem is that most inexpensive feature phones don’t have the technical sophistication to support HTTPs connection. “For these phones, traffic must pass through Internet.org’s proxy unencrypted, which means that any information users send or receive from Internet.org’s services could be read by local police or national intelligence agencies and expose its users to harm.”