By Nathaniel Mott
On April 15, 2015
Companies are finally starting to realize that allowing Facebook to control who can access the Internet, and how those connections will work, isn’t a good idea.
The [Indian] Times Group, Cleartrip, and several other Indian companies announced today that they’re stepping back from the Internet.org initiative because they want to support net neutrality more than they want a Facebook-controlled Web.
The Huffington Post’s India site has collected statements from each company. Cleartrip has severed all ties with Internet.org; the Times Group has committed to doing the same if its competitors also pull their support from the initiative. (What, like a large company like that will give the competition an upper hand?)
Internet.org is currently experimenting with several methods of providing Internet access to people in remote areas, or to people who can’t afford the connections available to them. Its most high-profile endeavor is a plan to use autonomous, solar-powered drones to deliver these Internet connections.
It’s an admirable goal. It also places Facebook in a position where it’s able to control exactly how these new consumers will access the Web, and unless the company starts hating money, it has no incentive to do so without undermining the idea that Internet service providers should treat every website the same.
I actually wrote something about this a year-and-a-half-ago, with the only difference being that I was writing about another Internet provider (GoSmart) offering free Facebook access. As I explained when that deal was announced:
Allowing free access to Facebook and its messaging service on a small prepaid network isn’t as large a threat to net neutrality as some of the things large Internet service providers might do. But this doesn’t mean that giving Facebook preferential treatment shouldn’t be frowned upon.
What is the difference between charging consumers extra to access one website and allowing them to access a specific service at no cost? Someone is giving consumers a reason to access one website instead of another either way. Both approaches give preferential treatment to one service over the competition. The underlying principle — that a byte from one website should cost more or less than a byte from another website — is the same.
Cleartrip, the Times Group, and the other companies that rescinded their support for Internet.org — whether completely or only tentatively — seem to have had the same realization. Charging more access to some sites isn’t the only threat to net neutrality; giving access to other sites is equally worrisome.
As Cleartrip explains in its announcement:
[T]he recent debate around #NetNeutrality gave us pause to rethink our approach to Internet.org and the idea of large corporations getting involved with picking and choosing who gets access to what and how fast. What started off with providing a simple search service has us now concerned with influencing customer decision-making by forcing options on them, something that is against our core DNA.
So 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. In light of this, Cleartrip has withdrawn our association with and participation in Internet.org entirely.
A free Internet is a free Internet, and the consensus appears to be that Internet.org, despite its best intentions, could very well undermine that.
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Nathaniel Mott is a staff writer for PandoDaily, covering startups and technology from New York.