Internet.org: Human Rights and Vertical Integration in a Digital Era

8 Jun 2015

By Stacie Walsh

Internet.org is a renewed global battle for open Internet ignited in the wake of the United States’ recent ruling in support of Internet neutrality. The project was proposed by Facebook as a  multilateral endeavour with Ericsson, MediaTek Inc., Nokia, Opera Software, Samsung, and Qualcomm to “develop technology that decreases the cost of delivering data…and helps expand Internet access in under-served communities”. On the surface, assuming responsibility of such a sizeable social project is nothing short of admirable. However, upon closer inspection, issues of freedom of expression, privacy and security, equal opportunity, and even innovation are at risk. Furthermore, it counters Internet neutrality initiatives through blocking and throttling content. The hazard of a small oligopoly of companies controlling Internet access is reminiscent of the 1940s’ Hollywood studio system. The studio system was a vertical integration scheme including production, distribution, and exhibition networks, and was eventually broken up by anti-monopoly regulation. Is Facebook building the vertical monopoly of the digital era, and what are its implications on human rights?

From Production to Walled Garden

Approximately two-thirds of the world’s population is without Internet connectivity. This gap denotes not only the digital divide, but also the knowledge divide created by lack of access to information or digital know-how. To address this, Internet.org partner organisations are investing in technological innovation ranging from low-cost, resilient smart phones to necessary infrastructure. While building up mobile connectivity in underserved areas can deliver important social benefits like mobile banking, healthcare and education, Internet.org provides a restricted variety of resources and creates a walled garden.

A “walled garden” is a closed network where access to certain applications or content is not available. This is how Internet.org functions at the basic level; it is in direct opposition to the non-discrimination principle of net neutrality. By restricting Internet access to particular content via a select number of apps, the production of information reaching underserved populations is left to a few voices. Additionally, Internet.org’s walled garden also fences in individual expression and restricts participation in wider online forums.

Distribution via Digital Intermediaries

Digital intermediaries (the software, applications, and search engines that act as a distribution mechanism, providing access to online material) have a complex relationship with human rights. For example, while Facebook offers an “equalizing” platform for speech and expression, it also filters, sorts, and promotes content. On one extreme, these actions could be called censorship. On the other, it is the execution of an algorithm. By acting as a digital intermediary Internet.org has the capacity to shape or promote particular opinions, ideas, or issues, either intentionally or unintentionally. This complex relationship between intermediary, content, and user highlights the issue of agenda-setting (the promotion and shaping of conversation around an issue). Already a concern in wider discussions around media outlets, the problem of agenda-setting is compounded by limited access to diverse online content.

Digital Exhibition: Smart Phones and Networks

Equal opportunity is important for production, distribution and market dynamics. In an attempt to support equal opportunity, Internet.org will allow independent developers to create supplementary apps for the mobile phones and platforms created by the partner organisations. However, applications and content are offered free of charge, posing entry challenges for small organisations and start-ups. In addition, there are strict system and development standards for the apps. Thus the complexities of monopolised access are at the application, software and device levels. Large tech companies will find it easier to comply with these constraints and benefit from the model, supporting existing market distortion and possibly stifling innovation.

Startlingly, data protection best practices and privacy standards are missing from the strict development requirements, but reportedly planned for future versions. This includes the common HTTPS protocol that secures online communications by authenticating websites and protecting privacy and data transfers. Then, take into account that Internet.org’s primary customers are first-time users, most likely little-informed about data protection and privacy concerns. Living in an era when reduced privacy for users equates to profit-gain for digital companies, to what extent is Internet.org’s initiative based in concern for digital and knowledge divides or in finding a new data market to suit business objectives?

In the End

Internet.org’s partner organizations are building services that provide social benefit while tapping into a large, emergent customer base. The residual impact of this vertical integration is implicated in social and human rights concerns. Great consideration needs to be taken in order to determine if a corporate-backed walled garden service is the best method to address issues of information access and digital divides. This question is especially pertinent bearing in mind there are existing initiatives developed by governments and NGOs to combat these concerns.

This blog was written by Stacie Walsh, GPD’s Internet Policy Intern. For more information about internships and opportunities to join the team, please contact Charles Bradley