#Asia The peaks and valleys of Internet.org


Internet.org is in an existential crisis. Does the impact of free Internet outweigh legitimate concerns around the initiative?

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The eternal optimist may see Internet.org as a rich man’s passion project with the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty. A skeptic might point out concerns of Net Neutrality and a jaded cynic may view the project as a means to build advertising in parts of the world that Internet dollars struggle to reach.

Even Mark Zuckerberg himself seems to have admitted certain struggles with the initiative — the mobile platform has an entirely different name, Free Basics , a rebranding effort meant to “better distinguish the app and website from Internet.org.”

So far, Zuckerberg’s legacy project seems to have been a mixed bag, so let’s reach our hand inside and pick out the sweet and the sour.

An opportunity for companies

When Facebook wants to develop a project to educate rural villagers on the latest medical trends, or to try and keep migrant workers up to date on the news, it doesn’t necessarily develop the tools in-house.

e27 spoke with one such provider, a Philippine venture builder called Incubix, who have shown a penchant for investing in media startups. On their website, listed ventures include Marino Daily, Klikpinoy and negosyoko.

Incubix CEO John San Pedro met Jackie Chang, Product Partnerships Manager for Internet.org at Facebook, at an event called ‘Raid the Fridge’, a monthly networking event in Manila organised by Globe Telecom-backed incubator Kickstart.

San Pedro says he did not know about Internet.org before the event, but that he was intrigued. Eventually, Chang and San Pedro discussed if Incubix had the ability to develop a lightweight news platform.

The two worked out the business details, and eventually newsbyte — a mobile-first news aggregation service aimed at countries across the developing world — was born. Users simply click the country and a list of headlines tailored for that location appear.

Anyone who visits the site will clearly see it is designed for slow Internet with minimal bells and whistles.

Internet.org will market the product in developing countries across the world and work to build a readership. Also, each country section aggregates the news in the local language.

“[There is] no revenue model for this vertical. But we like the leverage of partnering with Facebook and being able to give news for the underserved 4 billion. We will work with Facebook to further grow and develop,” San Pedro told e27.

Next up is to develop similar sites for news and sports.

Also Read: People say I built Facebook…that’s not true: Mark Zuckerberg

Globe Telecom Senior Advisor for Consumer Business Group Daniel Horan said in a statement ahead of the ‘Raid the Fridge’ event,

“By opening Internet.org to developers and entrepreneurs, we see more opportunities for the local digital startup community to expand their reach, propagate social advocacies and push entrepreneurial pursuits at the grassroots level”

This corporate motto has meant multiple companies have partnered with Internet.org, include Socialblood (which wants to build a mobile blood donor network), pregnancy advice company BabyCenter and MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action.

Additionally, Norwegian telecom giant Telenor has become a massive distribution partner across Asia and various other global telecommunication companies make the service possible — One such is Reliance Communications, an Indian telco embroiled in controversy because of its relationship with Internet.org.

Also Read: India’s online coupons startup CashKaro raises US$3.8M from Kalaari

Net Neutrality: A struggle for consumers and companies

The flashpoint for Internet.org is India. Facebook has put a massive amount of resources into the country and, it seems, has also received an equal amount of pushback.

Basically, it comes down to how Facebook is not actually remixing the Internet for 1G/2G networks. It offers about 40 different sites and services and it leaves unavailable huge swathes of what makes the Internet the force for change it has become. For example, users cannot access Google.

The sexy term used by mainstream media to describe the dilemma is Net Neutrality, but Lifedatatech nailed it, comparing Internet.org to the American Online ‘walled garden’ business model of the dial-up era.

For those too young to remember, when AOL, successfully, made the Internet accessible to millions of people during the 1990s, the company kept the ‘Internet’ in an internal ‘garden’. Parts of the Internet were unavailable to AOL users.

At the time, the company had the market share to pull it off, but, eventually, the Internet became much too large for the garden and AOL never properly adapted.

Facebook is under fire in India for similar criticisms. According to the New York Times, “many Indians want more and complain that, contrary to its altruistic claims, the project is simply a way to get them onto Facebook and to sign up for paid plans from Reliance.”

And it is Reliance Communications, or more accurately the relationship between the Indian telco and Facebook, that is raising concerns about Net Neutrality.

The partnership means non-Reliance users can’t access Free Basics. Users of the service will be charged for clicking outside the ‘Garden of Facebook’ (including, ironically, visiting Facebook without using Free Basics) and, as mentioned above, only have access to about 40 sites.

This is the exact same argument made in the US Net Neutrality debate. One pipeline means only one company controls the Internet, which, as a result, is no longer the Internet.

Also Read: Would I invest in Mark Zuckerberg too?

So, is bad Internet better than no Internet?

Internet.org clearly has problems. But, when Zuckerberg defends his intiative, he points out that “Through our connectivity efforts we’ve brought more than 15 million people online that otherwise would not be and introduced them to the incredible value of the Internet.”

Yes, he is seriously manipulating the word ‘Internet’. But companies in the Philippines now have opportunities to develop for the Facebook brand, and some of the poorest people in the world can now get news updates and health advice and it is still an unbelievable tool for education.

All of which come with serious drawbacks.

As Facebook continues to push its legacy-defining project, it will be more and more important to consider whether the ends justify the means.

Image Credit: Tukaram Karve /Shutterstock


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