An open letter to Mark Zuckerberg on Net neutrality
As far as Internet.org is concerned, please concentrate on ensuring open access and widespread network access
I read your article in Mint (16 April, mintne.ws/1yudRTC ) and realized that you are in the dark about Net neutrality as much as I am but you have also violated it.
The reason I’m responding to your article is because you mentioned your trip to Chandauli in Alwar district in Rajasthan last year and used the example of the villagers to explain how to connect the disconnected people, who would benefit from free content on the World Wide Web.
I am sure you remember that Digital Empowerment Foundation was your host in Chandauli village where it runs a community information resource centre for the villagers to access the Internet, access content and services through Internet, learn how to access digital content and resources, either free or by paying, but at their own will.
You would also remember there was a power outage during your visit and out of the one hour that you spent there, most of the time you waited for the kids and the villagers who were sitting before the computers to show something that they wanted to show you on the Internet.
You would remember that most of them actually wanted to show you their Facebook page and some wanted to show you content on YouTube and other Internet destinations that they use regularly.
While you were waiting, you were taken to some boys who were playing with their cheap mobile phones and they showed you how they access content and how they use their Facebook page on their humble Chinese smartphones by accessing it through the crawling 2G network and what they could have shown in a jiffy if they had a choice of 3G network.
When they were showing you how they use the Internet and Facebook, they were never prompted on their screen saying, “You cannot access this content unless you subscribe xyz telecom network.”
Even these people newly connected to the Internet know they can access any website or service and there is no disparity on the basis of their caste, creed, monthly income or geographical location or their loyalty to a particular Internet service provider or a telecom operator.
I remember how enthusiastically you explained to them about Internet.org and how you are working to give them fast access to the Internet.
You would remember that everybody applauded. Suddenly, one day, I was tagged in a photo on Facebook and people were sending messages and congratulating me as I was standing as a member of the crowd with you. This was a photo taken when we were in Chandauli.
You used this photo to announce and launch the Internet.org app. People thought I am in the big league if I had a partnership with you. Obviously, and fortunately (in retrospect), I have no partnership with Internet.org, or for that matter, Facebook.
Later, I was disappointed to know that the app was but an aggregation of several existing content already available on the Internet. In several meetings with your staff who visited my office and requested to visit many of our work online and offline, I thought you were working on creating an app that could bring critical and decisive content to the people on the ground in remote areas.
I also thought you were keen on provisioning access to Internet to the people who are still deprived and live in remote areas.
Since I realised that this is not what Internet.org was doing, I did not even download the app and find out any further detail.
After reading your article, I charged my Android phone (as my primary device is an iPhone) and downloaded the Internet.org app. I opened it and the first screen (see accompanying picture) appeared in Hindi without giving me a choice to choose a language of preference and said I can access this only if I have a connection through a particular operator.
This is the first time in my life of accessing the Internet for over 20 years when I was told I have to access it only through a particular service provider.
It is like saying that I go to the Saket Select Citywalk mall in south Delhi, and the security at the gate tells me that you can enter only if you have used a particular road or a highway to reach the mall.
Don’t you see that Facebook—even without marketing and purely on the basis of its power of being an enabler to connect people across networks and locations—has become a platform for voicing citizens’ needs, desires, rights and so on?
While you have been making people believe that Internet.org is a not-for-profit initiative to ensure maximum connectivity to those billions still unconnected, there is a huge confusion and insecurity that is evident from several efforts that are also trying to push Facebook in the name of Internet.org.
The least that you could have done is to ensure that the app is freely available on all operating systems irrespective of what network would be used to access them and let it grow on its own.
As far as Internet.org is concerned, please concentrate on ensuring open access and widespread network access, which will not only secure you more business, but also mirror ethical conduct.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He serves on the board of World Summit Award and Association of Progressive Communication. He is co-author of NetCh@kra—15 Years of Internet in India & Internet Economy of India.
His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar