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Digital divide

Facebook opens up Internet.org to developers, responding to net neutrality advocates

Chris Daniels, Facebook's VP for Internet.org, says Facebook isn't picking the web winners through the initiative.

Facebook announced on Monday that its Internet.org app, which offers some websites for free, without data charges, is being opened up to developers. “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,"  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post. "To do this, we’re going to offer services through Internet.org in a way that’s more transparent and inclusive.”

The lack of transparency and inclusiveness was among the criticisms that net neutrality activists have made about Internet.org, which is available in India through Reliance Communications on Android phones. In an interview at Facebook’s New Delhi office, Chris Daniels, Facebook’s vice president of product for Internet.org, explained why he believes Monday's announcement is significant.

What are the changes you are announcing today to Internet.org?
This is an important step we are taking, opening up Internet.org. This does two things. One, it invites developers to join, which we heard they want to. Two, it gives consumers more choice, which we heard they want as well.

How does it work?
If you are a developer and you have a service, you can join Internet.org if you comply with the principles we will soon publish. The process of joining the platform consists of three principles. The first is, it should encourage people to explore the broader internet. You may have links to other sites from your site, so the people are encouraged to explore beyond the basic services. Second is that you must develop a simpler version of your service to be a free basic service.

The second principle is around efficiency. This model has to work for the operators and for the business model. We need things that are data efficient on the network. Services like video or high-resolution photos aren't going to be a god fit in a free, basic service.

The third principle is a set of technical guidelines. These are technical requirements in order to zero-rate the traffic. These include guidelines such as https protocol can't be included, neither can javascript.

Currently there are around 30-odd sites on Internet.org in India. Opening it up and inviting developers could mean there could be a lot more sites on the platform. Are the operators going to be happy about this?
It has to work for operators in the long-term. What we believe though is that giving consumers more choice will make them experience some of these basic services that are valuable to them and then they can go on to explore the broader internet. When they do that, they will pay for the data, and that does work for the operator.

Is this move to open up Internet.org to developers in response to the net neutrality debate in India, as part of which Internet.org has been widely criticised as violating net neutrality principles?
We always wanted to provide more basic services as part of Internet.org. It was part of our long-term roadmap. The debate here certainly accelerated our plans. The debate also gave us an opportunity to go to all the constituents of the debate and hear how they see Internet.org, the benefits they see from it and the concerns people have about it.

The most interesting feedback we saw was from consumers, who were positive about programmes that bring people online. When we listened to the people spearheading the net neutrality debate, the primary things we heard were around consumer choice and making sure that any developer can join. Today we have addressed those.

Some content partners have exited Internet.org in India to support net neutrality. These include travel website Cleartrip and news conglomerates NDTV and The Times of India. Are you concerned about the future of Internet.org in India?
If you look globally, Internet.org is in nine countries right now. There hasn't been anywhere else that people have exited. I am very optimistic about Internet.org globally and in India, because we are providing a fantastic service for people to come online. It's working for consumers and mobile operators and now it will also work for the developer community.

There will still be people who will say that Internet.org is a violation of the net neutrality principle, as it creates a free and a paid lane, and one such discrimination in data is allowed, operators might use it to argue for fast lanes and slow lanes, and so on.
I don’t believe that Internet.org is a violation of net neutrality. I believe that that programmes that bring more people online must co-exist with net neutrality. We agree with the principles of net neutrality – that there shouldn’t be fast lanes, throttling, etcetera.

Programmes that are specifically designed to bring more people online are good for the entire ecosystem and the entire world.

It is important to differentiate between different kinds of zero-rating services. With Internet.org, the key feature is that there is no money paid by Facebook or other content providers to the operator. The only way Internet.org works for operators is that more people come online. That’s the only business model that works. It aligns incentives. The only thing Facebook does pay for is marketing Internet.org so that people who are not online come to know about it.

What would you say to those that Internet.org isn’t about bringing more people online but only increasing the monthly active users of Facebook.
That notion is absolutely false. Internet.org has roughly 30 content partners in India. Facebook and Facebook Messenger are only two of them, listed just like the other sites. We really people that people should come online and experience the entire wealth of the internet. That would be good for the entire ecosystem, and thus also Facebook. But that’s not our primary goal here. Our primary goal is that those who are not online should also experience the benefits of the internet.

Isn’t it strange that Internet.org wants to offer free basic services but has no email?
If an email provider wants to comply with the platform guidelines that we are announcing, Internet.org would be glad to have it.

What has been the consumer reception like for Internet.org in India? How many people are using it and how many people has it helped discover the internet?

We have seen it bring more people to the internet. We have seen data that shows it is bringing more people online. Unfortunately, I can't share any specific statistics. Those are between the operator and us.

What do the global numbers look like?
Our efforts have brought 8 million people to the internet, whom we believe would not be on the internet otherwise. Internet.org today is available today in countries or regions that cover roughly 800 million people. We are saying the adoption of internet.org continues to grow. We are in nine countries and will add more to the list. We are in this for the long haul.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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