Internet.org joint letter update: a response to Facebook’s “myths and facts”

Dear Mark Zuckerberg

It looks like Facebook had early access to a draft of the open letter to Mark Zuckerberg that 67 civil society organizations posted yesterday. On May 13th, before the letter was posted, the company published a myths and facts piece on the Internet.org website. The piece attempts to address the growing concerns that digital rights defenders around the world have about the program.

Unfortunately for Facebook, its “demythification” attempt falls short. The facts have not changed: Internet.org does not connect people to the full internet, but to a gated-off version of it, the keys to which are held by a private company. Even though any internet service is free to join Internet.org, the final decision to include a service — and the decision of whether to protect the security and privacy of people using Internet.org — remains in the hands of Facebook and its partners.

The project still threatens to infringe human rights, despite Facebook’s arguments to the contrary. For example, privacy forms the basis of the exercise of other human rights, such as freedom of expression. Even if people are not targeted with ads when they use the Internet.org app, Facebook still monitors (and collects) usage data, a practice that goes beyond what’s necessary. That’s a deep concern. Recent reports show that the company has continued challenges when it comes to its business model and the protection of personal data (see, e.g., here and here).

In addition, Facebook has not addressed one of the biggest worries about the Internet.org app: the fact that all user traffic is routed through Facebook proxies. This enables the creation of a single checkpoint for data flows that could make government surveillance, blocking, and filtering easier. It’s not in Facebook’s best interests to take on the added risk and responsibility of responding to government requests for surveillance or censorship.

In the past, Facebook has risen to the occasion in better protecting user privacy. For example, it created a “.onion” version of the site that could be accessed through Tor. The company has also now promised to allow SSL/TLS protocols in their mobile app.

There is still a chance for Facebook to uphold net neutrality and show real commitment to the empowerment of the next two billion people to come online. The company could do so by choosing to help provide unfettered access to the real internet. As we noted in our post on the open letter, there are better, sustainable solutions for achieving this goal.