How Facebook Can Fix Internet.org

When I first heard about this initiative, called internet.org, I was thrilled and thought it extremely charitable of Facebook to give free mobile internet access to the poorest people in the world. People for whom the decision often boils down to choosing between adding a data plan and putting food on the table. It just felt like the right way to give back; for a large, super wealthy corporation that has profited from a free internet. The logic seemed altruistic; access to knowledge empowers more people. The mission almost poetic; provide free access to “two thirds of the world that doesn’t have internet access.”

The one thing that struck me as curious is that Facebook was always included in the basket of so called “basic services” they were providing free access to; this basket included education, government, NGO, job listing, and e-commerce portals. But I was willing to accept this self-serving move for the greater good they were arguably doing.

However, as a result of neutrality debate in India, large web companies have now publicly dropped out of internet.org initiative due to a severe consumer backlash and based on how it might actually skew the level internet playing field. All this based on the curtain being lifted on a startlingly important fact, that was previously not made clear – the “basic services” internet (i.e. which websites to include in each country) is going to be determined by Facebook.

I will not waste ink talking about how this new information about the initiative clearly violates the core principles of net neutrality; while arguably trying to turn poor customers into Facebook addicts. SavetheInternet coalition has written an article here about why we should be concerned about the seemingly arbitrary and anti-competitive nature of the decisions on which services to include; e.g. in India the world’s largest search service, Google, has not been included but Microsoft’s Bing has.

With his pet project under attack, Mark Zuckerberg also penned an Op-ed in Livemint defending internet.org. While I agree with his basic argument that giving the poorest people access to “some” internet services is better than no access at all – I also believe that Facebook must let people decide which sites and services they want access to. So I want to offer Mr. Zuckerberg some suggestions on how he can fix this initiative to genuinely deliver on his mission of empowering the poor.

The way it could work is under the same basic principles they have outlines (large internet companies would still pay telecoms for the data costs, and Facebook could pay for smaller sites that cannot afford to):

  1. Customers would choose from a list of the top 10 sites (based on traffic rank, in each country) for each category of basic service e.g. ‘SEARCH” would include Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask, etc. and so on and so forth for ‘JOBS’, ‘TRAVEL’, and every other category offered
  1. If necessary, for cost reasons, the total basket of basic sites could be limited to the same number allowed now; I have seen between 12-15 sites depending on the country
  1. Consumers would be able to change the list of sites at the beginning of each month AND go beyond the initial top 10 based on personal experiences, level of satisfaction with a service, word-of-mouth from friends and family, or due to their own discovery on the internet

By doing this Facebook would achieve their noble goal but also ensure that EVERY person has access to a free, fair and service-competitive internet – the way God and Tim Berners-Lee intended it.