Internet.org cmn

Facebook has launched a campaign in favour of its version of Net Neutrality which favours zero rating on its Internet.org platform. The social networking platform has started placing ads in the middle of people’s timelines on their mobile phone application. When clicked, it redirects them to a Change.org petition which asks people to support their initiative. The Change.org petition shows that it has currently over 100,000 supporters and has set a target of 150,000 supporters.

Some of the screenshots popping up:

Does not support free Internet, just Internet.org

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been increasingly positioning Internet.org as a philanthropic initiative to get the next billion people on the Internet and through the portal where “a chicken farmer is able to sell more of his stock, an expectant mother can look up health information that will help her raise her child, and a student can find education services to study for exams.” But the petition really does not support a free Internet, but just Internet.org.

Last week, Zuckerberg opened up the Internet.org platform to all developers where any company could sign up to be zero rated, and customers would not have to pay for accessing these sites. Websites would also have to be approved by Facebook to be allowed in. However, services running on Internet.org will not be allowed to use VoIP, video, file transfer, high resolution photos, or high volume of photos. They also cannot use JavaScript or SSL/TLS/HTTPS. Internet.org says that unsupported content on the platform cannot be seen by its users, hence giving a very compromised experience to users.

We’ve also mentioned that this is a privacy nightmare for users as it collects information when users install, run or use any Internet.org’s services. Facebook’s Data Policy and Cookies Policy are applicable. Facebook mentioned that “we may share information such as your phone number or data usage with your mobile operator so we can provide and improve our services, and to enable us and your operator to understand how you are using and interacting with Internet.org and the carrier’s products and services. For information regarding how your mobile operator uses the information they receive, we recommend you also review their privacy policy” (source).

Services pulling out of the platform

In India, Facebook has tied-up with Reliance Communications for providing Internet.org. However in April, a number of Indian Internet services pulled out of the zero rating platform amid the ongoing debate for Net Neutrality. Cleartrip, Times Internet, NDTV and NewsHunt, who had signed on as partners, got out and also appealed to other Internet companies to do the same. In the same month, Flipkart also pulled out of a similar zero-rating platform offered by Airtel and said that it was committed to upholding net neutrality and would actively look to promote the same.

But as we’ve mentioned, in emerging markets such as India, where customers are very cost conscious, by giving access to these sites, Internet.org ensures that consumption for some portals become free, and some remain paid. This puts Facebook in a king-maker situation.

COAI’s misinformation campaign

It’s also worth remembering that telecom lobby COAI has launched a campaign for Net Neutrality called “Sab Ka Internet”. COAI has said that support for the campaign came from voice calls and SMSes made to a toll free number and has garnered 40 lakh responses. The COAI campaign is looking to  promote affordable Internet, push Digital India initiatives and ensure that Internet communication apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and WeChat be brought under that same regulations as telecom companies. The telecom body said if operators are not offered a level playing field with net-based services, then their businesses would be viable only by raising data prices by up to six times.

Note, Facebook joined COAI as an associate member in August last year.

Despite repeatedly saying that it is committed to Net Neutrality, COAI in its submission to the TRAI consultation paper on regulating internet services and net neutrality, COAI favours differential pricing for data access which violates neutrality principles. From its responses to the TRAI:

Service Differentiation is a common business practice that is widely practiced across various industries. Take the examples of: a) Tatkal rail tickets, first class, sleeper class, unreserved – differentiated products different prices b) First class business class and economy class in airlines c) National expressway or highway vs a regular road d) Travel by bus, taxi or an auto e) Priority banking, personal banking f) Regular water, mineral water. We believe that even in the matter of OTT, TSPs should be allowed differential pricing for data access and OTT communication services as long as the TSP shall not discriminate between subscribers of the same class and such classification shall not be arbitrary.

TSPs should be given the freedom to negotiate commercial arrangements with OTT players. The operators should be allowed to engage with the OTT players to get into the bilateral arrangements providing adequate measures for consumer protection.

Going by the responses with TRAI, the Sab Ka Internet initiative seems like an attempt at misinformation by the lobby group despite the 40 lakh supporters they claim.

*There was an earlier version of the story which has been edited for clarity