Yesterday, Facebook announced some changes to its Internet.org service that provides free access to some Internet services. Initially, Internet.org only contained about 40 services, which ended up causing a huge backlash in India due to net neutrality concerns.
The Net Neutrality Issue
The main criticism against Facebook was that the company is carving up a piece of the Internet, which only a few large companies get to dominate. Internet.org users would get free access to these companies' websites but would have to pay for access to competitors, which could potentially create significant distortions in many markets.
Tim Berners-Lee has called free-access services such as the Internet.org "positive discrimination," which means that it sounds like it's a good idea, at first glance. Indeed, giving consumers access to free stuff seems terrific until you realize what a negative impact it can cause for the competition, and eventually, those same consumers who may benefit from the free access in the short term.
Due to this backlash, Facebook has agreed to expand the list of sites that can get free access. However, many categories of Internet content are still excluded, including VoIP, video playback, file transfers and high-resolution pictures.
Just about everyone understands that those types of services consume more data than a simple text-heavy web page, and therefore it would simply be unsustainable to include them in an "unlimited free access" package.
The problem is that Facebook is creating this rift between certain types of content and other types of content, a rift that may never be closed even when data becomes 100 times cheaper a decade or two down the road. Most people who get this service will be educated to use only those free websites and nothing else.
From their point of view, having so far never seen the Internet and therefore remaining in the dark about its true potential, whatever Facebook allows them to see will be their version of the "Internet" -- a highly restricted, highly curated, possibly even censored Internet.
It's hard to imagine that the Indian government, or governments in some African countries where Internet.org will exist, won't have a huge sway in what goes into "Internet.org." Therefore, Facebook could potentially help more oppressive governments "shape" the type of information their citizens can access. Facebook's Internet.org could end up being the best version yet of China's Great Firewall.
Privacy And Security Issue
There's another, less talked about, but major issue with Internet.org. It won't allow sites to use HTTPS encryption -- or at least not encryption they can control. At best, sites will be able to use a Facebook proxy, which will use an "encrypted" connection.
It just won't protect you from having all your data, including sensitive information such as login credentials, given to Facebook, or from having Internet providers (as well as Facebook) track your behavior and push ads to you (as Man-In-The-Middle attacks that we've seen with some American operators).
Facebook presents the HTTPS encryption as a "technical" issue, because it would consume too much bandwidth, but many in the industry say that for simpler sites (and you can't get much simpler than an Internet.org site), the overhead is only 1-2 percent for bandwidth usage. Is Facebook truly arguing that the benefit of having HTTPS encryption is not even worth that tiny overhead?
While other companies such as Google and Mozilla try to push for an always-encrypted Web, Facebook seems to want to go backwards on this trend. There are billions of people who are yet to be connected to the Internet, and if Internet.org becomes popular, all of them could end up on a less secure Web.
Ultimately, Internet.org creates a net neutrality issue as well as a privacy and security one, and currently there's no way around that. Whether that's acceptable to the people in the countries where it's launching, that's for them to decide, but they should at least understand what they are giving up first to get that "free" access to a handful of websites. It's certainly not an easy and obvious trade-off as it may first appear to be.