Facebook Opens Internet.org to Devs as Net Neutrality Debate Rages
CEO Mark Zuckerberg isn’t standing by and watching as Net neutrality rules go into effect. While AT&T and other telecom and cable firms petition the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to delay the roll out of the new rules, Zuckerberg’s Facebook is taking a bold step: opening its Internet.org project by offering an open platform for developers to create services that integrate with it. And it’s not all about America, either.
Let’s take a quick step back. Net neutrality aims to assure equal access to the Internet. The net effect of the so-called Net neutrality ruling means sites that hog bandwidth, such as Netflix or Hulu, may be forced to pay extra for usage. The idea is to ensure that data-hogging services do not interfere with Internet speeds promised to other customers. The FCC’s January ruling has been one of the most controversial Internet moves in Web history. European and Asian nations are struggling with the same issues.
Zuckerberg launched Internet.org in August 2013 with a who's who of technology giants including Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, Opera and MediaTek. The founding members of Internet.org are developing joint projects, sharing knowledge, and mobilizing industry and governments to bring the world online. The founding companies have a long history of working closely with mobile operators, which are expected to play leading roles within the initiative.
Access Equals Opportunity
"Access equals opportunity. Net neutrality should not prevent access,” said Zuckerberg in a video post. “We need both, it's not an equal Internet if the majority of people can't participate."
According to an Internet.org post, the goal of the project is to work with as many developers and entrepreneurs as possible to extend the benefits of connectivity to diverse, local communities. To do this, Internet.org will offer services in a way that promises to be more transparent and inclusive.
“At the core of our efforts with Internet.org are non-exclusive partnerships with mobile operators to offer free basic Internet services to people through Internet.org. This is a set of basic Web sites and services to introduce people to the value of the Internet, and that we hope add value to their lives,” according to the post. “These Web sites are very simple and data efficient, so operators can offer these for free in an economically sustainable way. Web sites do not pay to be included, and operators don’t charge developers for the data people use for their services.”
Zeroing In on India
We caught up with Greg Sterling, Vice President of Strategy and Insight at the Local Search Association, to get his thoughts on Zuckerberg’s move. He told us Facebook is trying to be pragmatic about the situation in India, where there’s a growing debate over free access and Net neutrality. With the third-largest population, Net neutrality is an even bigger issue in the Asian nation.
“The company sees maintaining Net neutrality -- as strictly interpreted -- as a barrier to getting more people involved in the Internet and online,” Sterling said. “The company is accused of violating the principle because it's effectively subsidizing some sites and developers and not others. It's an unusual situation. In the developed world the debate has been about favoring some traffic -- creating a ‘fast lane’ -- vs. others in exchange for payments to the ISP -- think: Netflix and Comcast.”
In India, it's a much more basic situation and Facebook is almost doing the reverse, Sterling said. The company is using the promise of free hosting and services to get more people online, and some developers contend that because this move doesn't treat all traffic and companies equally it violates neutrality, he added.
“However, Facebook's primary value is to expand the number of people in developing countries who are online,” Sterling said. “That's both a selfless and self-interested move on Facebook's part. We'll have to see the results to determine whether its critics are justified in their concerns.”
Three Key Guidelines
Internet.org has only three guidelines for participation: explore the entire Internet; efficiency; and technical specifications. Zuckerberg wants to see services that encourage the exploration of the broader Internet wherever possible.
Zuckerburg is also encouraging developers to build apps that use data efficiently. That means Web sites that demand high bandwidth will not be include and services should not use VoIP, video, file transfer, high-resolution photos, or a high volume of photos.
Image credit: Courtesy of Facebook.