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A change of name to Free Basics doesn’t make Facebook’s Zero Rating service neutral


A few hours ago, Facebook carved out the Zero Rating part of its Internet.org package of services, and called it “Free Basics”. This name is far less misleading than Internet.org, because the collection of sites that Facebook partners with are not the Internet, but we’ll have to see if Reliance Communications stops advertising Internet.org as “FreeNet”. This also doesn’t change the fact that the service still violates Net Neutrality, and has other issues:

1. Supports Net Neutrality in the US, violates it in India: Facebook has signed the Internet Association’s amicus curiae brief supporting the FCC, stating “The open architecture of the Internet creates an innovation-without-permission ecosystem. Consumers (and consumers alone) decide the winners and losers on the open Internet.”

However, the terms and conditions of Free Basics requires that developers get permission from Facebook and its partners. The terms and conditions that earlier mentioned that Facebook won’t allow services that their telecom operator partners don’t want has now been removed, but that doesn’t mean that the being a part of Internet.org is permissionless. The terms and conditions now state:

Submission does not guarantee that your site(s) will be made available through the Internet.org Platform.”

Facebook also reserves the right to rewrite URLs and remove javascript and content from other domains. The terms state:

In order for your content to be proxied as described above, your URLs may be re-written and embedded content (like javascript and content originating from another domain) removed. In addition, secure content is not supported and may not load.

This indicates a pre-selected lineup, which is also was the statement that Facebook signed warns against, saying “Such an outcome would undo much of the progress of the last two decades. Consumers would lose the ability to choose freely among competitive services and sources of information. It would also significantly decrease the rewards edge providers could realize from innovating, further decreasing consumer choice.”

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2. Consumers don’t choose: which sites are available on Internet.org. The danger of such a move is that then their demand is limited largely to the choice available to them. This allows a certain set of services (including, of course, Facebook) to dominate usage. This then sucks more services into Internet.org, because of competitive pressure. In the end, all these services and their usage becomes more and more dependent on Facebook.

3. Does Facebook benefit from this? While Free Basics currently doesn’t have advertising, who isn’t to say that this isn’t yet another bait and switch from Facebook. MediaNama readers might remember how Facebook earlier encouraged businesses to spend on building their fan pages, and later artificially reduced the reach of updates so that they would have to pay to get maximum reach.

What if, tomorrow, Internet.org introduces advertising for its users, with a revenue share being given to its telecom operator partner? Bait and switch. By that time, the service would be far too entrenched for it to be shut down, competitive pressure would ensure that services don’t exit it, and more and more advertising would be routed through Facebook.

Facebook may not pay for data now, but what stops it from paying for data for Internet.org later, and allow a full version of the same service, thereby aggregating more and more users into it. Much of the Internet, in a sense, becomes Facebook’s App Store.

Also remember that all services on Free Basics have to abide by Facebook’s terms and conditions, which gives Facebook access to all data, and non-exclusive access to all content. This allows Facebook to become more powerful, collating not just their own data usage, but also of other services. What’s really surprising is that Facebook has terms that prevent developers from using data from Internet.org for advertising purposes. How is that an open ecosystem?

3. Two tiers of users: those on Internet.org and those on the open web: We’re effectively creating another digital divide, not bridging it. There will be a low bandwidth free version with limited services that choose to partner with Facebook, and there will be a higher cost open web. These services might also create a situation where the services provided in FreeBasics might end up being subsidised by those using the open web: telecom operators typically pay for data when Free Basics/Internet.org gets used, and that money might end up being paid for by users of the open web. The cost differential discourages users to move to the open web, as would a warning that would pop up, informing users that they’re being charged.

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Also keep in mind that this creates a global digital divide: users who use Internet.org will get a completely different selection of services as opposed to countries where the open web dominates. Remember that Internet.org is not a temporary or an introductory service: it is a permanent service. Users on Internet.org will not be able to use VoIP, view videos, transfer files or view photos larger than 200 KB, while other users will have access to all of these.

4. There are neutral ways of providing free Internet but Facebook ignores those: Which are the neutral alternatives? Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker has pointed out alternatives:

>- subsidising Internet access for users by showing them advertisements
– companies offering free data in the form of coupons, on the basis of the usage of their website
– donation of money to subsidise Internet access for the poor
– and instances of citizens with expensive data plans being charged a nominal fee which can be used to subsidise Internet access for the poor.

Mozilla and Orange have experimented with data bundled with handsets in Africa, and in Bangladesh, Grameenphone, along with Mozilla, allows users to get data if they watch ads.

5. On security of content: Internet.org says that it is going to encrypt information “whenever possible”. The traffic, according to the company, is encrypted end to end to protect user privacy unless a developer chooses to only support HTTP for their service. “…we use a “dual certificate” security model. The first certificate is used for traffic encrypted between your device and our servers in both directions. For services offered through Free Basics that support HTTPS, a second certificate will be used for traffic encrypted between our servers and the developer’s.”

Oddly enough, though, Internet.org terms and conditions for developers also state that “In order for your content to be proxied as described above, your URLs may be re-written and embedded content (like javascript and content originating from another domain) removed. In addition, secure content is not supported and may not load.

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In response to Facebook’s statement, Access says that “Free Basics’ proposed implementation of HTTPS/TLS, a standard protocol, does not always provide encryption at critical points when users browse online. While participating websites can designate that all connections be encrypted, the same option is not available for users themselves. Free Basics Users will be able to confirm that their connection to Free Basics itself is encrypted, but they will have no way of knowing if their interactions with websites are encrypted at every point between them and the website.

Additionally, users can verify the validity of Internet.org’s TLS certificate, but they are unable to verify that they are conducting a banking transaction with a real bank on the other side of Free Basics, as the bank’s website sits behind the Internet.org pathway. This is dangerous for people who will be banking online, or conducting other critical or sensitive interactions online through Free Basics.”

Disclosures: MediaNama has taken a strong stand in favor of Net Neutrality. I’m also a volunteer with Savetheinternet.in, which is advocating Net Neutrality in India.

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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