Digital rights groups are piling on to criticism that Facebook’s worldwide Internet access project, Internet.org, doesn’t promote privacy or security.
On Monday, 60 groups from 28 countries wrote an open letter on Facebook expressing their concerns about the project from Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg that is trying to bring basic Web services to the roughly 4 billion unconnected people worldwide.
Internet.org, the groups maintained, is “threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.”
Similar criticism started gaining traction in early May, after the social networking giant opened up the Internet.org platform to developers.
The move allowed software engineers to develop third-party Internet services and apps using the website’s platform. But the platform doesn't support apps that are encrypted or traffic protected with secure hypertext transfer protocol, a common method of securing website activity.
Facebook developers say the company is working to add these features soon.
While Internet.org has been lauded for its aspirations, digital rights advocates have criticized it for giving Facebook developers too much control over which services are available to the unconnected community.
Some have even alleged the initiative flies in the face of the Facebook-supported concept of net neutrality, in which traffic from all Internet services is valued equality.
Monday’s open letter gave a microphone to these allegations.
“It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services,” the letter said.
Data collection through Internet.org is a major concern as well.
“Given the lack of statements to the contrary, it is likely Internet.org collects user data via apps and services,” the letter continued. “There is a lack of transparency about how that data are used by Internet.org and its telco partners.”
Facebook has downplayed these fears, pointing out Internet.org doesn't share user location data with its partners and that third-party developers are not required to share user information with Internet.org.
Still, digital rights advocates worry the restricted offerings could create easy-to-monitor Internet services that facilitate snooping by governments and malicious actors.
Many of the organizations that signed onto the letter have long been involved in more common Internet access projects, such as wiring public libraries for Internet, expanding community broadband initiatives, or making Web services more phone-accessible, a popular way to access the Internet in many developing countries.
“We have always sought to provide non-discriminatory access to the full open Internet, without privileging certain applications or services over others and without compromising the privacy and security of users,” the letter said.
Groups signing the letter hailed from countries around the globe, including Brazil, Cameroon, Indonesia, Pakistan, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Facebook needs to not just publicly support net neutrality and strong digital security, the coalition said. The company must work on “applying these standards to its business initiatives."
The social networking company on Monday responded to the critiques.
"We and our critics share a common vision of helping more people gain access to the broadest possible range of experiences and services on the Internet," said a spokesperson.
Getting people access to limited services will drive desire for a widera array of options, Facebook said.
"We are convinced that as more and more people gain access to the Internet, they will see the benefits and want to use even more services," the spokesperson said. "We believe this so strongly that we have worked with operators to offer basic services to people at no charge, convinced that new users will quickly want to move beyond basic services and pay for more diverse, valuable services."