Update The Electronic Frontier Foundation has joined criticism of Facebook's Internet.org project, saying it runs "a real risk" of turning the few websites that Zuck & Co. select, "including, of course, Facebook itself", into a "ghetto" for poor internet users – instead of being a stepping stone to the full WWW.
The EFF is quick to state that it recognises the Internet.org project was pitched as a philanthropic initiative which would "bring the two thirds of the world who don't yet have internet access" onto the network.
However, while stating that they "completely agree that the global digital divide should be closed" the digital rights campaigners question "whether this is the right way to do it."
We agree that some Internet access is better than none, and if that is what Internet.org actually provided—for example, through a uniformly rate-limited or data-capped free service—then it would have our full support. But it doesn't. Instead, it continues to impose conditions and restraints that not only make it something less than a true Internet service, but also endanger people's privacy and security.
In a nutshell, the changes would allow any website operator to submit their site for inclusion in Internet.org, provided that it meets the program's guidelines. Those guidelines are neutral as to the subject matter of the site, but do impose certain technical limitations intended to ensure that sites do not overly burden the carrier's network, and that they will work on both inexpensive feature phones and modern smartphones.
The EFF complains that it is only some devices, such as Android phones running the official app, which have the technical ability to make encrypted HTTPS connections through Internet.org's proxy server without becoming vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks or exposing any data (beyond the domain being requested) to Facebook.
Noting that for most of the inexpensive feature phones – which may be expected to constitute the majority of devices used in the scheme – traffic will pass through Internet.org's proxy server unencrypted. As a result of this, any information which users send or receive from Internet.org's services could be intercepted by malicious actors, including the police or security services, which may expose its users to harm.
Even if Facebook were able to figure out a way to support HTTPS proxying on feature phones, its position as Internet gatekeepers remains more broadly troublesome. By setting themselves up as gatekeepers for free access to (portions of) the global Internet, Facebook and its partners have issued an open invitation for governments and special interest groups to lobby, cajole or threaten them to withhold particular content from their service. In other words, Internet.org would be much easier to censor than a true global Internet.
The EFF concludes: "We have confidence that it would be possible to provide a limited free Internet access service that is secure, and that doesn't rely on Facebook and its partners to maintain a central list of approved sites. Until then, Internet.org will not be living up to its promise, or its name."
A Facebook spokesperson responded to the EFF's accusations thus: “We and our critics share a common vision of helping more people gain access to the broadest possible range of experiences and services on the internet. We are convinced that as more and more people gain access to the internet, they will see the benefits and want to use even more services. We believe this so strongly that we have worked with operators to offer basic services to people at no charge, convinced that new users will quickly want to move beyond basic services and pay for more diverse, valuable services.“ ®