Facebook's Internet.org Presents Threat To Net Neutrality And Privacy (Op Ed)

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.

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Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • wardler
    It takes nothing more than a very, very, very basic understanding of economics and government regulation to know that Net Neutrality has so many issues that no one with less than nine-figure incomes will come out on top.
  • Someone gets free content, complains that the content is biased. Oh, right, the complaints come from India.

    Everyone half-educated understands that you get what you pay for. The only reason Facebook exists is because they track their users and sell data to 3rd parties. Everyone understands this. If you use Facebook or one of their free services, and complain that they track your data and feed you biased information, then you are stupid.
  • Kadathan
    It takes nothing more than a very, very, very basic understanding of economics and government regulation to know that Net Neutrality has so many issues that no one with less than nine-figure incomes will come out on top.

    Please, take a couple of minutes to educate us ignorants on why net neutrality is worse off for most of us than a traditional, "Go nuts, capitalists" kind of attitude, I'll eagerly await your well reasoned, obvious and simple argument.
  • Xenophage
    This is a COMPLETELY ridiculous article. Every new product and service is disruptive to competitors, that's the nature of competition in a free market, and your fears about a decade or two later the services not changing are completely, laughably absurd. Like that happens! When data is 100 times cheaper, this kind of service will be obsolete. There will either be lots of super-low-cost full-access Internet, or free Internet everywhere with no restrictions.

    In fact, this kind of service is only possible in the first place because data has become so cheap!

    Now if you're worried about censorship or privacy, there is only ONE solution to that problem: RESTRICT GOVERNMENT INVOLVEMENT EVERYWHERE, AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. The problem, if it becomes a problem to the extent that you fear it might, can only come from India's government - or any government anywhere that *cough* has regulatory jurisdiction over the Internet (thank god us free marketers in the west don't give overzealous regulatory angencies carte blanche control of our Internet, right?)
  • alextheblue
    I think everyone who has a problem with this should DEMAND A REFUND! :D

    (thank god us free marketers in the west don't give overzealous regulatory angencies carte blanche control of our Internet, right?)

    Damn right! Wait... uh oh... CRAP!!
  • PaulBags
    If it's free, you're the product.
  • someperson123
    It is shocking how little people read and how quickly they have an articulate opinion based on the first paragraph of this article.

    I personally am of the belief that if someone did not like Facebook's approach to this, they should make their own. If Facebook somehow prevents others from trying is another story in the anti-trust topic. However, that does not blind me to the clear distinction that Facebook is trying to expand their ad revenues by retrieving data from other websites to use with their advertisers.

    Furthermore, restricting HTTPS is obviously designed so they can more easily steal data from your activity on the sites visited on Internet.org. I say steal specifically in the context that the website from which Facebook is retrieving data for ads is not owned by Facebook. HTTPS would make it so Facebook could not snoop on the communication between the user and their target website accessed from Intenet.org. I cannot express enough how dangerous a precedent that sets.

    While I do understand that Facebook wants to profit from this (or at least break even), I do see it as a bit unethical to essentially monetize another company's website by acting as a Man-In-The-Middle between a user and their target website.
  • stoned_ritual
    It is shocking how little people read and how quickly they have an articulate opinion based on the first paragraph of this article.

    Welcome to the internet, you must be new here.
  • bin1127
    The fact that they are not allowing https says it all. It's going to be a massive data mine and everything sold for ad revenue. It might be free now, but the price will be heavy when the users come to realize their internet is not the same internet that exists for us and what should've been for them too.

    A private corporation should never be allowed to create and own in whole or part of the internet where individuals are the end users.
  • plasmacutter
    This WILL be censored. Facebook has over the past 2 years become the most censored "public forum" social media on the planet. They censor critics of feminism, creationism, jesse jackson style race-baiting, and marxism, and offer "fake news" tools to extremist ideologues with large followings to "flag offline" any material which debunks their sophistry, not only making it invisible to everyone, but not telling the people who shared it it's been deleted to allow them the opportunity to contest or protest the censorship!

    This is no doubt being used by domestic political groups and foreign regimes to gag untold amounts of news and prevent it going viral.

    They are the closest thing to the great firewall of china the western world has, and there's a special place in hell for Zuckerberg's totalitarian incursions upon free expression.