1/3 of the global population is on the wrong side of the digital divide, without the ability to go online regularly.
The reasons for this are simple and the solutions are complex: devices are expensive, mobile networks are few and far between, and power sources are limited or non-existent. Internet.org, an initiative by Facebook, aims to bring together technology leaders, nonprofits, and local communities to share tools, resources, and best practices in order to increase affordability, efficiency, and business in communities with limited connectivity that will help to close the digital divide. At the heart of this initiative is the idea that access to the Internet has become a human right, and that a multi-stakeholder and collaborative approach could solve the issues that hinder access. Zuckerberg’s connectivity initiative aims to bring Internet access to billions of people in the developing world.
The program has three prongs: Free Basics, the Connectivity Lab, and the Innovation Lab. Free Basics provides free basic services in markets that can’t afford access and employs zero-rating apps that allow browsing without data charges—but only on select websites. The Connectivity Lab is working to establish infrastructure that is affordable and sustainable. And the Innovation Lab helps developers understand how their apps will work in different parts of the world using a variety of network connection simulations. Since the 2014 launch in Zambia, Internet.org has expanded to 17 countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
While the goals of closing the digital divide are honorable and the multi-stakeholder approach inclusive, Internet.org has recently come under significant fire for a perceived violation of net-neutrality principles. Net-neutrality refers to the assumption that all online traffic should be treated equally; that broadband and mobile access providers cannot charge different fees depending on the type of content a user wants to access. Although Free Basics provides free access, it is access only to a select group of websites, sites selected by Internet.org, and not the entire Internet. In April 2015, several partners of the Indian Internet.org program quit due to Facebook’s failure to respond to this criticism.
Zuckerberg is steadfast in his position that Free Basics does not violate net-neutrality. He stated this week that “it is always better to have some access than none at all” and that “arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity.” At the heart of the debate seems to be issues with determining who should have access to Free Basics and under what circumstances, as well as any potential impact on ITC companies’ growth in developing countries.
Internet.org and Zuckerberg have prompted important conversations in India and around the world about how to close the digital divide in a way that also supports local economic growth, widespread computer literacy, and social unification. Potentially, a second generation Internet.org, with a restructured business plan, could pave the way towards truly global connectivity, and Zuckerberg’s numbers suggest that a significant proportion of users of the service convert to full access once they experience the value of connectivity.
At the moment only about 130 million of India’s more than one billion people are on line. Speaking recently to local residents and students at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg said, “The people who are not yet on the Internet can’t sign an online petition pushing for increased access to the Internet. We all have a moral responsibility to look out for people who do not have the Internet.”