It’s not connectivity versus neutrality

I have based the premise of this article on a statement by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. When questioned about the criticism his new project Internet.org received, he stated that:

“Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist. To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.”

So what is universal connectivity and what exactly do we mean by it? In this context, the phrase is being used to refer to a situation where every individual has access to the Internet. It is true that at present, a majority of the people inhabiting our planet are not connected to the Internet and do not have access to the same information as easily as you and I do. Internet.org , at first sight, appears to be a project aimed at connecting users in developing countries to the rest of us by providing free basic internet services.

Appears philanthropic enough? So why is it receiving so much criticism by organizations like EFF and major media outlets alike?

Internet dot org provides free access to only a few, select services such as Facebook and services which are “useful”, with the criteria for what is “useful” and what is not being set by Facebook and its partners. The argument organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation put up is that this creates a metaphorical walled garden for these users, where the Internet as a whole for them is comprised of only these few basic services and all their impressions of the same are limited to these services, effectively restricting them from choosing between different services. This goes against the principles of Net Neutrality.

Some of you might have had a run-in with the term net neutrality of late, even if it was only because of those well-intended videos by A.I.B encouraging you to sign petitions in favour of the same and what not. So what is this “true” net neutrality they speak about? Net Neutrality in essence, is the fact that all internet traffic, whatever the source of it should be treated equally. In response to this criticism, Facebook opened up Internet dot org to developers and now approves new apps for the platform.

Let us go back to Zuckerberg’s statement for a second again. So what did he mean when he said that “If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all?” Does he refer to a “greater good” type of scenario where offering a few companies monopoly over services somehow compensates for itself by providing users with at least some amount of connectivity to the Internet?

If he does refer to such a situation, then we see in front of us two ways to go about this:

1. The more practical but ethically dubious way of thinking here is that what is being done here is right and is also required for a project like Internet.org to be sustainable since some sort of incentive must be provided to companies so they invest in this project.

2. The morally superior but practically inferior idea here is that favouring connectivity over neutrality is wrong and since it defines the Internet wrongly for these users along with restricting the entry of new developers into the fold, it shouldn’t be supported by anyone.

While it is true that we must find a way to connect everyone to the Internet without compromising on the best thing (i.e. freedom) about it, it is not exactly feasible for us at the moment to do so. So is some connectivity better than nothing at all? It certainly appears so. We must, however,ensure that we find a way to implement and include the strictest standards of net neutrality in this model while we strive to connect everyone together, and opening up opportunities for new developers and start-ups to get their services on Internet.org is for sure a step in the right direction.

Dantin Kakkar
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