This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on October 14, 2015.
How come access to Internet.org through a limited network service is access to the entire Internet?
In 2009, I joined Facebook after my friend Asif Syed, editor of online news magazine Current.in convinced me of its possibilities for people like me who work in the social sector. In fact, he opened a Facebook account on my behalf on 28 February of that year and posted the first message on my wall: “Welcome to the networking jungle.”
I must confess I did not regret the decision—until recently. I was open to all. I never said no to any invitation, kept my profile and all my information open, thinking, “I don’t hide in any case any of myself and my life. What’s there to hide on Facebook or for that matter on the Internet?” I also felt obliged to open friendships, as my work makes hundreds of people in rural areas wanting to connect with me. The profile of my Facebook friends is more rural than urban, more socially conscious people than commercial, more of those who run micro and small initiatives than those in the big league, and with many friends from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and perhaps from over 50 countries.
I used Facebook as a tool for learning, making friends, accessing news by the masses and not news for the masses, sharing the hundreds of places that I travel to. I used it as a platform to update progress of projects, used it as an alternative to posting news or an alternative to project management and monitoring, telling stories through pictures and so on. It helped me understand how a platform can become so infectious and addictive that people would buy devices to go to the site and would subscribe to the Internet essentially to connect to Facebook.
It has been a great learning for me to understand that when we establish Internet connectivity and put up access devices in the remotest parts of the country, Facebook becomes the reason to gather a crowd. I have no hesitation in saying that Facebook in many ways is the reason for many to go to the Internet rather than Internet being the reason for going to Facebook.
That is where I thought Facebook was poised to use its standing of being perceived as the Internet to fuel people’s need and desire to go to the Internet and connect with the cyber world. But people at Facebook wanted a more complicated life. The straightforward success of billions joining on their platform on their own was not enough for them. And that is where the Facebook is floundering, and badly. So the question is: Is Facebook the Internet? Can anybody in his or her wildest dream believe or trust or argue that Facebook is the Internet or Facebook could be the Internet or Facebook should be the Internet? I have a feeling that Facebook is deluded in thinking so. It is certainly working in such a way that it could become the Internet. For that matter, what’s wrong with trying to explore if it could be the gateway to the Internet?
If we look at the history of the Facebook-promoted Internet.org, the approach and text and jargon and messaging were all about how it wants to enable the Internet reach millions who are not connected. Everybody thought it was not only extremely thoughtful of Facebook to think so but that it was a noble endeavour and a step by a concerned and good and willing citizen and company. No one doubted its intention, as the name has the domain extension of .org, which means and implies non-commercial and non-profitable.
The initial buzz was all about connectivity—how Internet could reach the unconnected, how to explore various types of technologies that could go beyond the expensive and time-consuming process of laying fibre optic cables and even satellite or wireless. The talk was also about how the maximum number of people could not only be connected to the Internet but be connected with affordability and ease. Gradually, we started hearing that Facebook was working on various technologies that could provide connectivity to the masses at a low cost; it was not difficult to believe.
Then we started hearing that Facebook or Internet.org is working on a mobile app that would provide various essential services like education and health to the people, which means content and not particularly connectivity. Then we see Facebook calling an app that it has developed with aggregated links and content and services, Internet.org—available to people only if they are connected through a particular telecom operator. If they do have that, they do not have to pay for the connectivity. It was a total mess and confusion.
In plainspeak, Facebook is not giving any miraculous cheap connectivity, not at all. They are giving you another app, which is a content service like Facebook, which is exclusive to a few on the basis of the network they use. This new content app called Internet.org is only using the currently available Internet network, which means network coverage is not increased in any way.
So the simple question is: how come access to Internet.org through a limited network service is access to the entire Internet? It is not. But then, many of our friends are also arguing that something is better than nothing. I would like to humbly reply to them by saying that please do not call Internet.org something of the Internet. It is actually not the Internet. Because, even if I endorse hundreds of good things about Facebook, it is not something so critical that I cannot live without it. And I have no hesitation to say that for me and for millions who are connected to Facebook that we will not miss even one critical thing in our lives if we don’t have Facebook. But I cannot say the same for the Internet. I can for sure say that without the Internet we can be critically affected.
It must be noted that the DNA of Facebook is that it is made by the masses and for the masses; if it is derived to control, acquire and exploit that privilege, it would automatically lead to its own undoing.