Mozilla says Facebook should focus on real Internet access
Facebook’s been taking a lot of heat lately for failing to understand (or pretending to fail to understand) how its Internet.org initiative spells trouble for net neutrality. As noted previously, Facebook’s vision has been to deploy a “free” walled-garden service like AOL to developing nations. Critics have been dropping out of Internet.org, stating they don’t like Facebook picking which companies get included in the walled garden. Things have gotten particularly heated in India, where neutrality advocates have made it very clear they think Facebook’s vision hurts the open Internet long term.
Zuckerberg’s response so far? You’re hurting the poor if you don’t like the way we’re doing things, because a walled garden is better than no Internet at all. Of course that’s a false choice: Facebook could offer subsidized access to the real Internet, it just wouldn’t get pole position in delivering ads to billions of new users in dozens of developing nations. It’s a mammoth advertising play dressed up as utterly-selfless altruism, with a dash of indignant at suggestions there’s a better way.
Mozilla recently decided to jump into the conversation with a series of blog posts offering a much more intelligent, nuanced take on the problem with zero rated apps. In one post, Mozilla notes how if you let Facebook create a new definition of the Internet today, you’re setting the stage for notable problems down the road:
“We understand the temptation to say “some content is better than no content,” choosing a lesser degree of inclusion over openness and equality of opportunity. But it shouldn’t be a binary choice; technology and innovation can create a better way, even though these new models may take some time to develop. Furthermore, choosing limited inclusion today, even though it offers short-term benefits, poses significant risk to the emergence of an open, competitive platform that will ultimately stifle inclusion and economic development.”
That mirrors concerns by folks like Stanford Professor Susan Crawford, who have lambasted such models for “entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination.” Mozilla notes there’s plenty of ways to help fund Internet access to developing nations that doesn’t involve building walls and cherry picking program participants. For example the company has struck a partnership with Orange to provide $40 Firefox OS smartphones with 6 free months of voice, text, and up to 500 MB per month of data. Another effort offers a small allotment of free data for watching an ad.
In short, there are options that don’t turn the Internet into a glorified version of CompuServe. But rushing toward walled gardens again isn’t just about today, it’s about what these ideas mutate into over the longer haul. Mozilla Foundation Chair Mitchell Baker took this idea further in a second blog post:
“Selective zero-rating is unquestionably bad for the long term opportunities and inclusion for the people it is designed to serve. It pre-selects what’s available, directing people to where others want them to go. It is bad for economic inclusion. It is bad for the ability of new entrepreneurs to grow onto the global scale. It is bad for the long term health of the Internet. Zero-rating as practiced today is “selective zero-rating for a few apps and websites; exclusion for the rest of the Internet.” The correct answer is that all data is transmitted at the same price, whether that price is “zero” or anything else. This way, consumers pick the content they choose to access based on the quality of that content, not the financial power and business partnerships of the provider. This way, new entrepreneurs can still reach any and all users on the Internet, even if they are a few people working in a co-working space with no ability to subsidize data charges.”
In other words, if Facebook really wants to help the poor, it can do so by using Internet.org to fund access to the “real Internet,” not some bastardized version of the Internet that lets Facebook and select ISP partners play god. The conversation in India mirrors the conversation we’ve been having about systems like AT&T’s Sponsored Data here in the States; opposition to zero rating is simply about getting massive gatekeepers out of the way and ensuring equal access to the purest version of the ‘Net possible.