Mark Zuckerberg recently posted a small article on his own company Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB), explaining how and why is Internet.org a great platform for websites. Before I write further, try accessing Internet.org and you may find it amusing that the website is not accessible if you are on a non-reliance network in India. Have you ever heard about the internet that discriminates among internet users?
Anyways, he writes that he got this idea of providing what he terms as “Universal Access” while visiting a classroom in a village in India. Since Internet is not affordable to people universally, it would be a good idea if the internet is provided to the underprivileged sections of the society through the Internet.org initiative.
However laudable this objective is, he skips/ gives a short drift to a number of issues that would arise, if we all or at least most of the majority were to jump on to the Internet.org bandwagon.
Before we go to the problems with Mark’s model, let us understand a little bit about net neutrality. This is a keyword which even educated people find it difficult to comprehend.
So here is how I explained it to someone who is not into technology that much but still who wants to know what the fuss is all about. There are two aspects to the problem.
A Water Pipe example
Imagine, you have a water pipe from the Water Distribution Company (or government) to your home. At the location, where your water pipe meter is located, the Water distribution company installs a hi-tech meter.
The purpose of this meter is to determine how much water you use for brushing, bathing, washing utensils etc. separately. For each of the usage, the water company decides to charge you separately. That means instead of the bill that you pay for water, you will get a complete bill for how you are using it. Would you like it this way? Probably not.
A Public Garden example
This example is similar to that provide in this hilarious video:
Let us say, government or a charitable society creates a garden that is initially open to all of public. You are charged minimally to access the garden for its upkeep.
However, you are not charged again once inside a garden but only for the time you spend on it.
Later on a person of influence declares that the garden is not available to the whole population in the city because they do not get the transport to the garden. However instead of providing transport, he occupies a part of a garden and in agreement with maintainers of the garden (not the owners) decides to provide access to that part of a garden.
His contention being since he is providing those facilities, he is entitled to use the garden whichever way he wants. While others can use the “remaining” garden the way that they want, he will decide who will play in this garden as well as if they are allowed to move from his part to another. He also occupies a major part of entry gate so as to enhance access to his part. Would that garden now be called free for everyone? No.
The internet is your Garden and the water is your traffic
You are allowed to access the whole of a garden and also you don’t have to pay extra to use water in your kitchen. Nobody can tell you that a part of a garden is now restricted and people who are entering the restricted part of a garden are not allowed to access the other side.
The owner of restricted area would like you to believe that the restricted entrance is also free and you can use all facilities. However, he does not tell you that if you are buying something from a vendor in the garden, you will need to pay more than usual.
This is because either maintainer or the restrictor need to be compensated for the free access. So pay more, access only what the restrictor says or lose your access.
Here Facebook pays to the maintainers but maintainers decide what facility can be used. I hope you get the point.
Remember garden was a public property right from the start. It was free for anyone to access/enjoy.
So how does net neutrality fits in above two scenarios?
Net is traffic neutral. That means just like the garden and water above, internet does not attempt to identify the usage. From the article in Wikipedia about Internet, here is an excerpt
The Internet is a globally distributed network comprising many voluntarily interconnected autonomous networks. It operates without a central governing body.
The key is without a central governing body. That means it grows organically or inorganically when new nodes are added. There are no rules and regulations.
You can just hook up your server to the internet and publish a few HTML pages called as a site. That’s it. Then you can start propagating your point of view to the internet audience, which discovers it by either search engines (like Google, Bing or any other ) or Social media sharing ( like Facebook, Twitter ) or just links through other websites ( such a blogs or web directories ) .
No one tells anyone how to discover and how to be discovered. You either popularize yourself (appear in the results of a search engine) or someone likes your content and shares it with their friends or just a link to another blog. That is the power of open internet.
Problem with Mark’s proposal
For content creators, there is a restriction on entry. While initially they had complete freedom to start a content site and be discovered because their content is good, the new silos will not allow that to happen now.
The content will be available on the free side and will be available on the restricted side only if, Telcos allow that. That means if you are a net entrepreneur and if you are on a shoe-string budget, be prepared to be fleeced to pay for a space that was already yours.
For the users, the argument is that at least they have access to internet.
However noble is the internet.org idea, it forgets the principle that the internet was built on freedom and not a restriction. A user can compare prices and find the best buy for now. However in a restricted scenario, a user will not be able to compare prices because he will not be able to access sites other than those “pre-approved” by telcos.
Problems for entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurs creating a product that is better than/competing with Facebook may not find it easy to enter Internet.org. The telcos too will be able to put barriers to apps that compete with their current basket of apps. Innovation will be stifled as entrepreneurs will not be able to reach consumers on “free” networks. People using these networks will be unable to access new apps leading to severe inefficiencies.
People do not use internet only for Facebook or a few apps
If we read an argument on internet, we love to jump at the link (If provided) that would explain it further, act as reference, shows opposing point of view or even if it completely unrelated. It is our choice and freedom. We would not like anyone to be constrained to see all points of view because they need to pay to access them.
If I don’t want to access Facebook, I should be able to access any other social media and it should not be governed by Facebook /telcos standards.
In summary, one takes a free and open space, occupies part of it, put restriction and call the remaining space a free space. Such an entity is called as monopoly if there is only one of it and oligopoly if more than one entity controls the market.
The need for control
Obviously world over telecom companies are making a lot of money charging for internet usage. Now it is the first time a huge content company “Facebook” has given them a much bigger opportunity to make more money than ever. This whole idea of Internet.org will create toll-like situation, where you will need toll (separate plan) to access apps / websites that are not bundled in your plan.
And we know how this would work out for the world.
Solution that Mark can actually use
We use Facebook most time of the time and we feel it is an excellent site. It has made Mark incredibly rich. So now it is up to Mark to denote at least 50% of his wealth to creating technologies that provide access to more and more nations. He can even tie up with Telcos to pay them for providing free access to the poor. That would be real charity (without expecting anything in return).
He needs to remember that his own company would not have been so successful if there were plans already in place by competitors to stifle growth of new social media sites. He should at least respect that part of history.