Facebook Shifts Focus With Internet.org

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Facebook is now presenting Internet.org it as a way of getting more users onto paid Internet services

Facebook has claimed its Internet.org has helped mobile operators sign up more users to paid Internet packages – a shift in the way the company presents the benefits of its controversial free Internet initiative.

Internet.org includes a number of elements intended to spread Internet access, including drones and satellites beaming Internet access, but most public attention has focused on an app Facebook encourages mobile operators to provide to users for free, and which includes services such as Facebook itself as well as others provided by both US and local organisations.

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This week marks the first anniversary of the app’s introduction in its first country, Zambia, and Facebook said more than half of the people who came online through the app pay for data and Internet access within the first 30 days.

“These points show that Internet.org is not only a successful tool in helping bring people online, but it is successful in showing people the value of the internet and helping to accelerate its adoption,” Facebook stated.

The company said it has launched a portal for participating operators including tools and best practices. The Internet.org app has launched in a total of 17 countries in its first year, including India, Zambia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Columbia.

The new figures highlight the ambiguity surrounding Internet.org, which Facebook has presented primarily as a charity intended to “connect the unconnected”, while critics have pointed out that it also serves as a way for the company and other participants to subsidise access to their own services, giving them an edge over competitors – something that could be particularly valuable in the long run in the growing economies targeted by Internet.org. Such concerns are identical to those that have fuelled a debate over “network neutrality” in the US.

In May several dozen rights groups, including European Digital Rights (EDRi), signed an open letter to Facebook alleging that Internet.org violates network neutrality.

Net neutrality

In April several of the companies that had provided services via the Indian version of the Internet.org app pulled out of the scheme over these concerns, and the scheme could face tighter regulation in that country.

In May of last year Chile ruled that services that subsidise mobile data usage violate the country’s network neutrality laws. The ruling targeted services such as Facebook Zero, launched in 2010, as well as Wikipedia Zero and Google Free Zone, all of which which subsidise access to a stripped-down version of the service.

Facebook’s latest figures shift the emphasis away from the charity aspect of Internet.org, presenting it more as a business opportunity for operators.

“Our goal is to work with as many mobile operators and developers as possible to extend the benefits of connectivity to diverse, local communities around the world,” Facebook stated.

Marketing value

In defence of the Internet.org app, Facebook has pointed out that if users sign up for paid services, they will gain access to an unrestricted version of the Internet.

However, such statements are disingenuous, according to critics, since it overlooks the fact that the means by which users are introduced to the Internet is a significant factor in shaping their future perceptions and usage of it – which they say would seem to be a significant motivation for the existence of schemes such as Internet.org.

For instance, a study earlier this year by business publication Quartz found that as a result of Facebook’s subsidised services, many users in countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia and India were aware only of Facebook, and not of the broader Internet, with 65 percent of Nigerians, 61 percent of Indonesians, and 58 percent of Indians agreeing with the statement that “Facebook is the Internet”, compared with 5 percent in the US.

Eleven percent of Indonesians who said they used Facebook also said they do not use the Internet, according to the study.

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