By: Newley Purnell
September 26, 2015 12:00AM
When Muhammad Maiyagy Gery heard about a new mobile app from Facebook that provides free internet access in his native Indonesia, he was excited.
But after testing it, the 24-year-old student from a mining town on the eastern edge of Borneo soon deleted the app, called Internet.org, frustrated that he was unable to access Google.com and some local Indonesian sites.
Mr Gery’s reaction illustrates the unexpected criticism Facebook has encountered to its bold initiative to bring free internet access to the world’s four billion people who don’t have it, and to increase connectivity among those with limited access. He is one of many users who say a Facebook-led partnership is providing truncated access to websites, thwarting the principles of what is known in the US as net neutrality — the view that internet providers shouldn’t be able to dictate consumer access to websites.
Since Mr Zuckerberg’s announcement of the $US1 billion project two years ago, Facebook has launchedInternet.org in 19 countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa by teaming up with mobile carriers and technology giants including Samsung Electronics, chip maker Qualcomm and telecom-equipment firm Ericsson.
Facebook says that through the initiative, in which it is also experimenting with drones and satellites to deliver web access, some nine million people have come online.
Users with data-enabled feature phones can access a special website through a mobile browser, while those with smartphones can download the app from Google’s Play Store. Though arrangements vary by country, the Internet.org app typically provides a simplified, low-data version of Facebook, its Messenger service and selected local websites offering services like jobs, health information and sports updates.
Facebook says it works with mobile operators, which provide free data, and governments to pick sites for the platform. While some applaud the internet initiative, the company is dealing with a backlash from users in some of its fastest-growing markets like Indonesia and India, which are key to its future expansion.
In response to the criticism, Mr Zuckerberg earlier this year wrote an opinion article that appeared in two Indian newspapers defending the project. He argued that the initiative is compatible with the principles of net neutrality, and that if people “can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all”.
But criticism about the initiative has placed Facebook in an awkward position. The social network along with other tech companies like Amazon and Twitter are members of the US industry group internet association, which advocates for net neutrality, among other issues.
In markets like Indonesia and India, critics say Facebook is more interested in controlling which websites users can tap into than in ensuring free internet access.
Facebook wants to be seen as a pioneer “of the open and free internet and not the opposite”, said Neha Dharia, an analyst at telecommunications research firm Ovum.
Facebook said yesterday it was changing the name of the Internet.org app and mobile website to Free Basics by Facebook to better distinguish it from the company’s wider Internet.org initiative. Asked whether the change was related to criticism of the project, a Facebook spokeswoman said that the name will “more intuitively describe the product to consumers”.
Chris Daniels, Facebook’s vice-president in charge of the project, said in a recent interview that he has been surprised by the criticism of the project, noting that many people have gained access to the web.
In India, travel website Cleartrip, news channel NDTV and a mobile news app recently pulled their content from the platform amid concerns over net neutrality.
In interviews with more than a dozen users in Indonesia, where Internet.org launched in April, many said they weren’t interested in the app or weren’t happy with the selection of websites.