Critics Still Doubt Facebook’s Free Internet Despite Changes

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Critics Still Doubt Facebook’s Free Internet Despite Changes.

This week, Facebook and its conspicuous founder rebooted the free app that provides (some) online access from mobile phones in 19 countries across the globe, dropping its old Internet.org moniker in the face of various complaints and rebranding it as “Free Basics by Facebook.” On Saturday, at the United Nations in New York, Zuckerberg will give two speeches on the importance of online communications in the developing world. Facebook, which has been facing criticism from some quarters in India for its Internet.org service, has opened up its free internet platform as the Free Basics app.From being just a social media platform, Facebook is transforming itself as an enabler of Internet access through various initiatives aimed at reaching the next billion users.

Facebook’s Internet.org program, intended to supply free Internet to people in developing countries, is renaming its app “Free Basics”—and allowing developers greater flexibility in creating apps for the platform.”We want to make it clear that the apps you can use through Internet.org are free, basic services that can give you access to essential resources like BabyCenter,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post, referring to a community for advice and support on pregnancy and parenting.

But after testing it, the 24-year-old student from a mining town on the eastern edge of Borneo soon deleted the app, called Internet.org, frustrated that he was unable to access Google.com and some local Indonesian sites. Over half the world’s population – 57 percent or 4.2 billion people – still does not have access to the Internet, a report from the Broadband Commission for Digital Development says. Called Wi-Fi Express, the initiative is part of Facebook’s Internet.org platform as it looks to expand its user base beyond the saturated markets in the US and Europe. Launched in 2013, Internet.org initially (and controversially) provided access only to Facebook and content from select partners; earlier this year, however, it was opened up to all developers, albeit with a number of limitations. Current Android app users can continue without interruption; the mobile Web version, meanwhile, will redirect from the previous URL to FreeBasics.com.

Chris Daniels, vice-president of Internet.org, said the idea was to create a differentiation from the wider objectives of Internet.org. “We want to give people access to a few free basics services on the internet and we know they will quickly understand the value of the internet,” he said during an interaction at Facebook’s new office in Menlo Park. If a user tries to view content that isn’t included in Facebook’s free package, they are asked to pay for a data plan—prompting users and advocacy groups to call Internet.org’s truncated services a violation of net neutrality.

Facebook first announced plans for the Internet.org Platform in May, and “over the past few months, developers have adapted their services specifically for the Internet.org Platform requirements,” the organization said. Facebook says that through the initiative, in which it is also experimenting with drones and satellites to deliver web access, some nine million people have come online. But Facebook is also playing a role in determining what services are accessible through its app, and that’s what sparked complaints from public advocates and online publishers. It officially went live today with more than 60 new services available across the 19 countries, like free health, education, and economic information. Users with data-enabled feature phones can access a special website through a mobile browser, while those with smartphones can download the app from Google’s Play Store.

Though the rebranding—and a few other changes—have been welcomed, some are still raising concerns as Zuckerberg takes his global mission from California to New York and back again. ‘It’s pretty hard to understand how a reasonable person would be against the program at this point. We are working on various business models to help the local entrepreneur get returns and turn investors in the project in the long term,” Seth told BusinessLine. Knowing this deficit of basic Internet access would not help his quest to connect the world virtually, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a plan two years ago to bring the Internet to the three-fifths without it. Internet.org is also getting a security upgrade. “We already encrypt information everywhere possible, and starting today Internet.org also supports secure HTTPS web services as well,” Zuckerberg said.

Though arrangements vary by country, the Internet.org app typically provides a simplified, low-data version of Facebook, its Messenger service and selected local websites offering services like jobs, health information and sports updates. Facebook has developed a low-cost software that will help hotspot operators at the village level do the billing and also alert consumers about data usage. No content is blocked.’ In the wake the Internet.org reboot, the global public advocate Access Now applauded the app’s new name and other changes to the service. Facebook teamed up with local providers to give users access to things like Wikipedia, some job listing sites, select weather, sports, and news outlets, and, naturally, Facebook and Facebook Messenger.

While some applaud the internet initiative, the company is dealing with a backlash from users in some of its fastest-growing markets like Indonesia and India, which are key to its future expansion. Daniels said Facebook does not pay service providers for the data and “no money changes hands”. “The commercial benefit for service providers is that people move on to paid services soon,” he added. Zuckerberg insisted he was just trying to get people connected, but ultimately announced that Facebook would open Internet.org to anyone who could build an app that didn’t eat up too much bandwidth. “Connectivity isn’t an end in itself. It’s what people do with it that matters—like raising a healthy family,” Zuckerberg said. “We hope the improvements we’ve made today help even more people get connected—so that our whole global community can benefit together.” The social network along with other tech companies like Amazon and Twitter are members of the US industry group internet association, which advocates for net neutrality, among other issues.

Anyone currently using the app will be able to continue using the Android app, though it will now be called Free Basics by Facebook in Google Play,” Facebook said in a blogpost. It is giving people a choice of the applications they can use,” he says. “I was a little confounded by the reaction.” The issue is that Facebook’s free Android app—and the free website that lets you do something similar from phones that don’t run the Android operating system—offer access to only a portion of the Internet. Ime Archibong, director, product partnerships, said the fact that over 30 new Indian partners have signed up shows how there were a lot of people passionate about the cause. Facebook wants to be seen as a pioneer “of the open and free internet and not the opposite”, said Neha Dharia, an analyst at telecommunications research firm Ovum. Facebook works with various wireless carriers to get the app on phones; the idea is that it can provide online access to people who couldn’t otherwise afford wireless data service or don’t quite understand what the Internet can do for them.

Facebook, however, is confident that its initiative will become one of the key projects addressing connectivity issues not just in India but other emerging markets. “Initial data coming in from the hotspots installed in India suggests that this model will work. Daniels told the Economic Times. “So what we did is we opened up Internet.org so that any developer can develop an application that a person coming online for the very first time can use.” On his Facebook page, Zuckerberg announced the change alongside photos of “Asif Mujhawar, a soybean farmer from rural Maharashtra, India,” who has been using the free BabyCenter app from Internet.org for health tips with his two daughters. Asked whether the change was related to criticism of the project, a Facebook spokeswoman said that the name will “more intuitively describe the product to consumers”. We will take this to other countries much faster than what we had initially thought,” said Chris Daniels, global leader of the Internet.org initiative.

Most of the comments on this announcement were positive, though several Indians noted that farmers in Maharashtra probably worried more about putting food on the table than their Internet access. Zuckerberg and Facebook, critics say, become gatekeepers determining what apps people can access. “Net Neutrality requires that the Internet be maintained as an open platform on which network providers treat all content, applications, and services equally, without discrimination. In India, travel website Cleartrip, news channel NDTV and a mobile news app recently pulled their content from the platform amid concerns over net neutrality. Facebook is now in the position of deciding winners and losers through Free Basics.” Facebook and Daniels say that anyone can build a service for inclusion in the app.

The aircraft has the wingspan of a Boeing 777 and is built to stay airborne at 60,000 feet for many months, connecting a large area over which it hovers. Search results on Ask.com — which is available via the platform in Indonesia — can be viewed free of charge, but users incur a data fee when clicking through to websites not included in the initiative.

Explaining the rationale behind Wi-Fi Express, Yael Maguire, Head of Connectivity Labs, Facebook, said: “In countries such as India we have realised consumers in rural areas have about $25 a year to spend on communication needs. It is difficult to meet that cost level and that’s why we are researching technologies that will address this challenge.” Another project Facebook is experimenting on is using lasers to transmit data. That is the purpose of Free Basic.” If you give them a taste, he says, they will move to the broader Internet. “I don’t think anyone who suffers from the awareness barrier is going to be attracted by some megabytes,” he says. “That doesn’t make sense to people.”

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