Internet.org, the partnership between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Norweigian telecom operator Telenor, seeks to make internet access available to the two-thirds of the world’s population who are not yet connected, and to bring the same opportunities to everyone that the connected world has today. The project was first launched in July 2014 in Zambia followed by Tanzania, Kenya, Colombia, Ghana, India, Philippines, Guatemala, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malawi.
Now the project is coming to my native Pakistan. Through the internet.org app, Telenor’s 37 million customers in Pakistan have free Internet access to 17 websites that includes the popular social media website Facebook along with BBC, Wikipedia and other news, health, education, finance and information services. Internet.org’s aims are based on a real problem faced by millions of people without Internet access in Pakistan due to low incomes and affordability, user capability and, most importantly, poor telecommunications infrastructure.
Despite the effort’s apparent noble intentions, this initiative has more drawbacks than benefits. First, both internet.org and Telenor are misleadingly marketing to the people this initiative as “the Internet” whereas the free net access provided through this initiative is not the real Internet but basically a bundle of limited websites approved by Facebook with significant privacy and security flaws. Second, this initiative does not help in resolving the connectivity issues of developing countries such as Pakistan and doubles the gravity of the issue by offering a platform for restricted Internet access where people with scarcer economic resources have very limited opportunity for joining the global Internet economy. Thus the effort does little to narrow the digital divide.
The Internet’s success is due to its openness, equality of opportunity and innovation. Platforms such as Facebook itself would not have been created if Zuckerberg accessed the Internet only via this initiative. Furthermore, the Internet is already believed to be an important medium to help countries such as mine develop successful economies. But Pakistan is hampered by poor broadband infrastructure, low speeds and unavailability of access. Pakistanis who may connect for the first time using internet.org are at risk of missing out on the real Internet that gives them an unlimited opportunities for socio-economic development, thereby leading to a potential lack of interest in the real Internet.
Despite limited access, the Internet has already become a very powerful medium of change in Pakistan in a very short span of time. Approximately 30 million of Pakistan’s 191 million population have Internet, half of them through their mobile phone, according to a report by mobile survey company Ansr.io. The Internet has empowered them with genuine freedom of speech without censorship. Paradoxically, Internet.org is set to put freedom of expression at risk. Its consequences can be detrimental in repressive regimes such as Pakistan where governments are pursuing an active agenda for censoring the Internet in the name of national security and social and religious values. Facebook through this initiative is strangely putting itself in a position whereby governments could pressure to block certain types of content or users who access it. This can be especially harmful for politically active users in restrictive environments. Moreover, the security and privacy of individual users will also be at a constant risk of malicious attacks and spying by the government.
The goal of providing universal, affordable Internet access to every person on Earth is too large and too important for any one company, group or government to solve alone. It requires a cohesive multi-stakeholders approach that demonstrates a commitment to the public interest, fairness and transparency. As for this particular effort, Facebook through internet.org appears to be focused instead on expanding its user base and advertising empire in the developing world, all in the name of providing free access to ‘the Internet.’ This nefarious development agenda is no different from the ones pursued in the periods of colonialism, imperialism and then capitalism where resourceful governments and corporations exploited the poor countries with the fake promises of development.
Pakistanis, along with peoples from other developing countries, deserve the right to savor the real Internet — not the one delivered by Internet.org. The Zuckerberg-Telenor effort not only jeopardizes the growth, freedom and expansion of the Web in Pakistan but also risks creating a two-tiered Internet with millions in the developing world quarantined the wrong side of digital divide.