Facebook is turning Internet.org, its project to provide free internet to new users, into a platform. The move comes amid criticism of the program’s “walled garden” approach to hand-picking services, and claims that it violates the principles of net neutrality.
Criticism of net neutrality has been particularly strong in India, where a zero rating program from operator Airtel ignited the issue. Facebook lost a number of partners in India, who withdrew from Internet.org in response to the debate, and that gives today’s announcement some added spice.
“Our goal with Internet.org is to work with as many developers and entrepreneurs as possible to extend the benefits of connectivity to diverse, local communities. To do this, we’re going to offer services through Internet.org in a way that’s more transparent and inclusive,” Facebook said in a blog post.
In addition, on the user side of things, Facebook said that Internet.org users will soon be able to venture beyond the initial limits of the portal and search for, and use, new third-party services. In other words, Internet.org will go from being a static portal to a basic (and free) layer of Internet.
While the platform will be open to all prospective developers, there are three central principles that partners must adhere to, Facebook said:
— “Services should encourage the exploration of the broader internet wherever possible.” — this is fairly vague, but it looks to imply that locking users inside your app isn’t ok.
— “Websites that require high-bandwidth will not be included. Services should not use VoIP, video, file transfer, high resolution photos, or high volume of photos.” — Facebook points out that operators are giving up resources for the project for free, so this is a limit to prevent them totally being taken to the cleaners.
Facebook and its operator partners for Internet.org have been accused of taking a “king-maker” role because they choose the services that are included in the free Internet portal, and potentially promoted to millions of new users. That position of power gives selected companies a leg up over their competitors — but opening up the platform levels that off, on paper at least.
“We’re building an open platform, and anyone who meets these guidelines will be able to participate,” Facebook added.
Internet.org was first available in a handful of African countries, but it has since expanded to Asia with launches in India (population of 1 billion-plus) and Indonesia (population of 250 million) among others.
The open-platform approach may quell some of the criticisms of the program, but it remains to be seen whether companies — and particularly young startups — will have the interest, time and resources to adapt their services to yet another platform. That’s particularly pertinent in India, where many startups are scaling quickly and already have their resources and teams stretched without piling on additional work.