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Facebook’s Internet.org platform is a privacy nightmare: tracks users on partner sites, allows telcos to track

Internet.org cmn

Facebook announced today that it was opening up its Internet.org service to all sites, probably in response to criticism (including that from us), that it was selecting services, and playing kingmaker. It has announced its Internet.org platform. Along with the announcement comes more information on Internet.org, which brings to light fresh issues.

So, now with full disclosures on what Internet.org is about, here’s what we noticed about it:
– It is an open platform that allows any company to sign up to be zero rated, wherein customers won’t have to pay for accessing these sites, and websites will have to be approved to be allowed in.
– Facebook will allow all types of low bandwidth services to sign up for the platform.
– Websites do not pay Facebook to be included, operators do not charge developers
– Services should not use VoIP, video, file transfer, high resolution photos, or high volume of photos.
– No JavaScript or SSL/TLS/HTTPS
– There will be bookmarked services, and a search option. Read this interview with Hindustan Times.

For more of our exhaustive coverage of Net Neutrality issues in India, click here.

Issues with the Internet.org Platform

First up, no matter what Facebook says about Internet.org being a means of promoting Internet usage, it isn’t. It’s a fundamental, permanent change in the way the Internet works by splitting it into free vs paid access. It isn’t the same as giving someone Rs 10 of data access or even 100 mb. It is a permanent shift.

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While the kingmaker issue has been somewhat addressed by opening up the platform, there is only one true king in all of this, which is Facebook. There are significant concerns with their terms and conditions, especially those around Facebook’s favorite topic – Privacy, apart from other issues:

1.  If you’re a user, Facebook, your telecom operator and the government will know what you are doing: “We collect information when you install, run or use any of our services, including the free websites and services provided through Internet.org,” says Facebook. Facebook’s Data Policy and Cookies Policy are applicable. (Hat Tip: Kiran Jonnalagadda)

Also “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)

“In addition, secure content is not supported and may not load”…”your content or service should not rely on passing or collecting encrypted information — resources that do so will not be accessible within Internet.org or will be dropped altogether. While we would prefer to support fully encrypted connections between user and website in all cases, proxying for third-party sites does not allow for this in its current implementation without introducing man-in-the-middle capabilities.” (source)

Without https (secure content), this means that telecom operators will also be able to snoop on your users, and through them, so will the government. Is Privacy a small price to pay for free access to a directory of services? Should the fact that India doesn’t have a privacy law be a factor in allowing Facebook to launch Internet.org? The Internet.org proxy (details) is without https.

To understand what kind of data Facebook is tracking, check out their privacy policy.

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Also, if you’re a site on Internet.org, it appears that Facebook will know what users are doing on your site.

2. Telecom operators can still choose to reject you, hence play kingmaker:

“Operators may decline services that cause undue strain to networks, or breach legal or regulatory requirements.”

3. Facebook will get non-exclusive rights to content: Facebook’s Internet.org ‘participation guidelines‘ page points developers towards its “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities“, which clearly states that for content that is covered by Intellectual Property Rights, “you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.”

3. If your competitors are on board, you will have little choice: The reason why Times Internet publications remained on Internet.org was that their competitors are also there. If one competitor chooses to come on board, you will have little choice but to also follow, else lose out on a potentially large user base. This gives Facebook access to data from across websites.

4. If users try to go to the open web from the Internet.org ecosystem, they’ll get a warning message: The idea of a warning message when users are moving from a free to a paid service is a good idea. It prevents “bill shock” for users, but this hurdle (to jump over) doesn’t exist on the web.

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As an online business, if a user is accessing your service on the open web via a Facebook link, and they get this warning message, it is likely that they will drop off. That will force you to go on board, in order to gain access to this user base.

5. Facebook becomes an even stronger source of access for your content: Lest we forget: Facebook throttles content on its own platform, and this strengthens Facebook and Internet.org’s role in discovery. It appears that you’ll need a Facebook account for Internet.org:

“We may collect and use your phone number to determine your eligibility to receive free services, to provide you with relevant offers and services from your operator and others, and to provide you with access to your Facebook account.”

6. If you’re a Video service or use high resolution images, you’re not allowed: Telecom operators have been, for long, complaining about how consumers who use video services take up significant bandwidth. It probably appears to be fair to telcos like Reliance Communications, and a prerequisite for Facebook, to offer low bandwidth services without video, because RCOM will be paying for it, but this something that should perhaps have been a function of availability of bandwidth (video services taking more time to buffer because of slow speeds), and not a function of which type of service is being offered by any service provider.

What should Facebook do?

If it really wants people to get online, subsidize data packs of Rs 10-100 for potential Internet users. Let them access whatever they want, whether video, VoIP, images, and whichever site they want.

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– Times Internet is currently an advertiser with MediaNama
– I am a volunteer with Savetheinternet.in and MediaNama has taken a strong stance in favor of Net Neutrality for a few years now.

Written By

Founder @ MediaNama. TED Fellow. Asia21 Fellow @ Asia Society. Co-founder SaveTheInternet.in and Internet Freedom Foundation. Advisory board @ CyberBRICS

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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