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Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s public-spirited effort to bring internet access to the impoverished isn’t quite as magnanimous as it might seem.

Bloomberg / Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg wants to disrupt internet access in developing countries in a way that only a Silicon Valley billionaire would. Not only does he want the world's digital plebeians to have free access to data on their phones, he wants to provide an internet on-ramp to them to help them decide what to do with this data once they have it. He calls it Internet.org.

Zuckerberg's project is big. It's ambitious. It might even be magnanimous. It's also stumbling.

Internet.org is Facebook's marquee program “to make internet access available to the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected,” according to its website. It's a coalition between Facebook and half a dozen technology giants, which include Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson, MediaTek, and Nokia. In 2014, the program kicked off in Zambia in Southern Africa. It rapidly expanded to Tanzania, Colombia, Kenya, and Ghana before coming to India in partnership with Reliance Communications in February. Internet.org is now available in 11 countries — including the recently added Southeast African Malawi, one of the poorest nations in the world — and promises to bring more than a billion people online.

The premise, on the face of it, is simple: Internet.org wants service providers to build stripped-down phone applications and websites that it can deliver for free to those who can't afford to pay for cellular data. And its striking agreements with carriers around the world to do it. “[The internet] gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities,” wrote Zuckerberg in a Facebook post. “It gives voice to the voiceless in our society, and it connects people with vital resources for health and education.”

The Washington Post called it a “laudable, altruistic mission to bring Internet to the 5 billion people in the world who don't have it.” The New York Times called it Facebook's effort to “lower barriers to internet access.” When Facebook launched drones to beam this free internet to parts of the world with less-than-optimal infrastructure, the tech press reported about it with breathless excitement.

And yet, less than three years after it first launched, the cracks in Internet.org are beginning to show.

In India, arguably one of the most important countries for the program, with over 900 million mobile connections, big-name partners like news portal NDTV and travel site Cleartrip pulled out last month. In a strongly worded blog post on its website, Cleartrip said:

“While our original intent was noble, it is impossible to pretend there is no conflict of interest (both real and perceived) in our decision to be a participant in Internet.org.”

According to opponents in India, Facebook was playing kingmaker by selectively “zero-rating”  websites — a telecom industry term that means data that a consumer doesn't pay for directly but is somehow subsidized by a carrier or a content provider — and splitting the open internet into free and paid tiers.

Zuckerberg has been in damage control mode ever since. He wrote a fierce defense of Internet.org in the Hindustan Times, where he argued that “net neutrality and universal connectivity can and must coexist.” Two weeks later, Facebook opened up the Internet.org platform and allowed almost any website to sign up for it — as long as it met Facebook's guidelines.

In a video released to explain the changes, Zuckerberg attempts to justify Facebook's pro-zero-rating stand. “Some may argue for an extreme definition of net neutrality — argue that it is somehow wrong to provide any more services to support the unconnected,” he says. “But a reasonable definition of net neutrality is more inclusive.”

That's the thing about zero-rating. Depending on who uses it and how — and which lens you view it from — it can feel perfectly reasonable or utterly unacceptable. zero-rating exists in its own morality, smack-dab in the middle of a digital gray zone. If carriers like AT&T or Airtel push programs like “sponsored data” and Airtel Zero — where content makers subsidize users' data by paying carriers directly — zero-rating can be plain evil, because it snuffs out smaller players in the market who can't afford to pay carriers to reach consumers.

If this doesn't sound like something you as a consumer should care about, imagine this for a moment: You're a wildly ambitious person building the next Netflix-killer. But Netflix — with over $5 billion in revenue — has paid AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint a hefty chunk of cash to make sure binge-watching House of Cards on their networks doesn't count against people's monthly data caps. Because you're a fledgling streaming startup, you simply can't afford to pay your customers' ISPs to reach them. So Netflix dominates. You lose. Zero-rating can murder competition even before it's even had a chance to develop.

If implemented wisely, however — like the Kindle's Whispernet feature, which allows you to download books from Amazon over a free data connection, or T-Mobile's Music Freedom plan, which lets you stream music from Spotify and Google Play Music among other services, data caps be damned — zero-rating can be rather useful. With products like Wikipedia Zero, zero-rating has allowed schoolkids in over 59 countries to do their homework. (Why Wikipedia? Why not Britannica? Or something else? Yes, these are all valid questions.)

In India, carriers have long zero-rated WhatsApp by offering “packs” to people who can then use Facebook's $19 billion instant messenger without paying for a separate data plan at all. This has no doubt contributed significantly to WhatsApp's explosive growth in the country. (Why WhatsApp? Why not Hike? Or Viber? Or Telegram? Or Snapchat? These are the questions that everyone in India is asking. The answer may simply be that WhatsApp came first.)

So yes, zero-rating does split the internet into different tiers. But, says Zuckerberg, that's A-OK as long as it brings more people into the fold.

Indeed, writes economist Diana Carew in a memo released by the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, as long as zero-rating is implemented in a way that is transparent (no secret agreements between carriers and content providers) and nonexclusive (all zero-rated content should be available on all carriers), it can be a great way to jump-start local internet ecosystems in countries where data plans are prohibitively expensive.

Opponents of zero-rating say that it effectively traps users in a quagmire of free services. On Backchannel, Susan Crawford writes:

“Those users may never move to 'real' Internet access, satisfied with their 'free' access to a walled garden of chosen services. And carriers will have no particular incentive to provide them with that open Internet access. Instead, vertical discrimination will become the norm: the Internet as cable TV.”

These concerns, said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, are largely overblown, because something like an Internet.org can go either way:

a) Hundreds of websites sign up for Internet.org; users end up staying within its free boundaries because they have so much choice and little reason to step out (plus stepping out can be expensive); and providing all this free data becomes an untenable proposition for mobile carriers who eventually want out.

b) Internet.org actually gives people a taste of the internet as Facebook claims it will, and makes them crave the broader “real” internet beyond its walls; users then start paying carriers to get their data fix — in which case the threat of Internet.org will have been overplayed anyway.

“We have to think about the economics of how things work, [rather] than complain about certain websites being easier to access than others,” says Prakash.

None of this actually lets Internet.org off the hook. Even though Facebook has addressed the program's biggest criticism — no one knew how content partners were chosen — by allowing nearly anyone to sign up, critics say that the change actually makes things worse.

“It sets Facebook up to serve as a quasi-internet service provider—except that unlike a local or national telco, all web traffic will be routed through Facebook's servers,” writes Josh Levy, advocacy director of Access, an NGO that deals with digital rights of users around the world, on Wired.

When it comes to countries like India, there is a whole new set of problems. Despite explosive growth in mobile usage, average revenues per user in India are some of the lowest in the world — $2 per month compared with a global average of $50, according to Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, a telecom industry lobby that's pushing hard for zero-rating regulations in the country. The poorest Indians, who Facebook is pitching Internet.org to, can barely afford to pay for regular voice calls and text messages. If it turns out that a free, albeit deprecated, version of the internet works reasonably well, it's unlikely they would pay more money for “the whole internet” — no matter how compelling it might be.

And with 13 carriers operating in the country that can each set up its own zero-rated ecosystem in addition to Internet.org, an alleged upcoming zero-rated service by Google, and the open internet, the world's largest democracy is at risk of being splintered into multiple internets: 16, to be exact.

“No one wants to live in a world with 16 different versions of the internet depending on which carrier you're accessing it from,” said Nikhil Pahwa, editor of Medianama and a strong net neutrality advocate. “Internet.org is hastening an institutionalized shift in how people use the internet, which is worrying.”

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Chris Daniels, vice president of product for Internet.org, emphasized how the program would work for carriers only if people actually got hooked and purchased data to access the broader internet as a result. But seriously, look at what Facebook has done recently: Its Instant Articles feature, which allows select publishers to host their content directly within Facebook's mobile app, means users will spend even more time inside Facebook. Forget getting out onto the broader internet; Facebook doesn't want you to leave once you're in.

With explicit guidelines preventing Internet.org content partners from encrypting content, Facebook is setting itself up as as the ultimate gatekeeper, ready to slurp up users' data as soon as it brings the next billion people online.

There's a lot that Facebook can change about Internet.org to improve it. Experimenting with a zero-rating model where users are given a some free data in exchange for, say, viewing a few ads. Or making its walled garden less suffocating by allowing users to access hyperlinks up to two degrees for free. There are a number of alternative zero-rating models it might embrace, and others that can be created.

“But then it wouldn't be as self-serving as it is right now,” says Prakash. “Having more people online is good for Facebook and Google. They're not doing it as charity.”

And yet that's exactly how Zuckerberg pitches Internet.org each time he talks about bringing the next billion impoverished people online. If Facebook is truly as philanthropic as Zuckerberg claims, it might consider giving 100MB of free data to anyone who wants it and see what happens.

I won't judge.

Pranav Dixit oversees technology coverage at Hindustan Times.

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