- Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair
Mark Zuckerberg is starting to seem a little weary of repeating the same defense of Internet.org, his Facebook-led initiative to bring free internet services to people around the world.
Critics, particularly in India, have been calling Internet.org an affront to the principles of net neutrality.
Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally, no matter what service it comes from.
Internet.org’s app, called Free Basics, allows users in developing countries to access only services which follow its specific developer guidelines (for example, all services need to be simple and data efficient to be included).
Because Free Basics doesn’t include the whole internet and Facebook is creating the criteria for inclusion, people say that the company is building a “walled garden” that violates net neutrality principles. It’s also creating a ghettoized internet, where only the wealthy get the full internet, while poorer people are relegated to a more limited version.
Impact and controversy
“Basically, it turns out that everything impactful you want to do has some controversy,” he laughed, with what sounded like a tinge of frustration.
Price discrimination, what net neutrality protects against, is undeniably bad, he said. But allowing Facebook and other companies like Wikipedia, job sites, or news organizations to offer their services for free, isn’t.
“If you want to sell apples and sell them to white men for a dollar and black women for $2, that is wrong and is rightfully banned,” he said. “And net neutrality is kind of like that. If an operator wants to advantage their own video program and not Netflix, for example, that is bad. It’s good that regulation protects against that. But if the person selling apples wants to donate some to a food bank for free, there’s never a law against that. It’s really hard to see how what we’re doing is hurting anyone.”
Because any company can submit a version of their app for Free Basics, people who use it have found new ways to get healthcare information, news, job listings, and more. It’s not just Facebook, like some people assume; there are more than 60 services offered.
Zuckerberg said that for every ten people who get connected to the internet for the first time, one person gets lifted out of poverty and one new job is created. But people who have never had it don’t realize what they’re missing.
“If you ask these people, who didn’t grow up with a computer and have never used the internet, do you want to buy a data plan, their answer is going to be ‘Why?’ They actually have enough money to afford it, but they’re not sure why they would want it,” Zuckerberg says. “So, the answer to that requires a business model innovation, which is making the internet something where you can use some basic services that don’t consume a lot of bandwidth for free. Within a month, more than half of the people who get access to those services realize why the internet is valuable and become paying customers.”
So, according to Zuck, Free Basics open to any developer who wants to submit their service, and most people end up opting to pay for complete access, which they likely wouldn’t have done if they hadn’t had the option to try out some services first.
But Free Basics is actually just one of Internet.org’s overall connectivity efforts. Through a partnership with a French communications provider, the company will launch a satellite to bring access to large parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
The media in the US much more focused on the net neutrality debate than on the controversy about whether you should be able to send a satellite signal down to the ground from a satellite which is not built in that country, Zuckerberg says. For Facebook, though, the latter topic is actually much more of an issue, since laws exist against that in many countries.