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Why Facebook's Internet.org is so Controversial in Asia

Nithin Coca headshotWords by Nithin Coca
Data & Technology
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There are two types of corporate-supported foundations. The first are the mostly benevolent: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Ford Foundation, which work on social projects that are quite far removed from the business of their founders' companies (in this case, Microsoft and Ford Motor Co., respectively).

The second are the corporate fronts. For example, the American Petroleum Institute, or anything connected to the Koch Brothers. These put on a facade of social care but focus on topics directly connected to the bottom-line of their main funders. See climate-denying science or pushing for government policies that benefit big business.

Mark Zuckerberg's Internet.org initiative, with a stated noble goal of bringing Internet access to the billions around the world currently lacking it, might have showed its true colors as one of the latter this past week when its free application launched in Indonesia and India to waves of backlash from net neutrality activists and widespread concerns that it was promoting a Facebook-centric Web.

India and Indonesia are the world's second and fourth most populous countries and also the largest untapped Internet markets. Thus enter Internet.org, which is currently focused on proving a basic suite of Web tools for free, in partnership with major telecom companies in both countries.

The problem – Internet.org's goals are remarkably in-line with Facebook. In fact, at NXCon in Jakarta in 2014, a Facebook, not Internet.org, spokesperson told me and an audience of mostly young, male Indonesians about how the company is working offline in rural Indonesia to ensure that when users get online, they'll want to get on Facebook first.

Is it just a coincidence that Internet.org fits in perfectly with this corporate strategy?

Also concerning is privacy. Internet.org states that “[Facebook collects] information when you install, run or use any of our services, including the free websites and services provided through Internet.org.” That is right. Facebook. The initiative isn't actually a nonprofit. It is directly connected to Facebook, the same company that gave the NSA access to its data. Thus, any data collected by Internet.org could, potentially, be used by Facebook when it sells ads in the future, through your new Facebook account.

This is all part of a larger strategy to expand Facebook's control of the Web. Just look at the social network's recent move to have media companies, such as the New York Times, post content directly within the social network through a revenue-sharing scheme. The cycle works like this: Internet.org introduces Facebook to you, and content – your friends photos, events and, now, news – keeps you in. Your data, however it was gathered, can be used to sell you ads that expand Facebook's growing profits. What use is the “Internet” when you have Facebook?

Growth sooner rather than later


In the end, the key driver is that Facebook needs growth – and India and Indonesia are the two biggest sources of growth, especially since China remains closed, much to Zuckerberg's chagrin. Getting new users to immediately join Facebook via Internet.org will allow the company to meet projections already built into its rising stock price.

Unlike their American counterparts, Indonesian Web users are notorious for their ability to use multiple tools. Dual SIM phones are everywhere, allowing users to choose which network matches their need. India's hundreds-million-strong middle class netizens are as savvy as their American counterparts, and are pushing for net neutrality laws on-par with what the Federal Communications Commission approved in the United States last month

Thus, Internet.org, a tool meant to bring the web to millions, may have the effect of turbocharging the net neutrality and Internet access fights in both countries. Whoever wins may determine if the future of the Web is Facebook, the Internet or both.

Photo Credit: Esther Vargas

Nithin Coca headshotNithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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