Net Neutrality debate: Facebook’s Internet.org has privacy, security issues

Facebook's Internet.org will continue to face criticism, and for reasons around privacy and security, despite what the company says.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | Delhi | Updated: May 7, 2015 3:36 pm
Internet.org, Facebook, Facebook's Internet.org, Internet.org criticism, Internet.Org has some privacy and security issues that have been pointed out. (Source: Facebook)

Even as the debate over Net Neutrality continues in India, Facebook announced that it will open up the Internet.org platform to encourage more developers and get more services online. In addition to this, Facebook listed seven reasons defending Internet.org. Facebook’s passionate appeal that it aims to get more users online with Internet.org aside, the fact remains that the platform will continue to face criticism, and for some valid reasons.

For starters, despite what Facebook says if you’re a stickler for principles of Net Neutrality, then Internet.org violates it in one way or the other. As we had pointed out earlier, any service that is offered free on the Internet, from free Facebook to even free Wikipedia is technically a violation.

With Internet.org, Facebook ties up with operators (for no cost or money exchange, says the company) to make sure that its app is free. The zero-rating app system still applies to Internet.org and as many Internet activists have pointed out the zero-rating is a violation of Net Neutrality.

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More importantly, while Facebook’s rules for developers on Internet.org are aimed at developing low-bandwidth apps, the problem is that app developers/service creators can’t really create a lot of meaningful experiences.

Also there’s a lack of encryption which has raised concerns. Facebook’s rules state worryingly, “websites must be properly integrated with Internet.org to allow zero rating and therefore can’t require JavaScript or SSL/TLS/HTTPS. At this post on MediaNama points out, no HTTPS means no secure connection.

The reason for no encryption is given in Facebook’s own technical guidelines, “From within Internet.org, all traffic is routed through the Internet.org proxy. We do this in order to create a standard traffic flow so that operators can properly identify and zero rate your service.”

Thus you can easily leave out services like Banking, messaging, emails or anything else that relies on a secure connection. In statement Facebook told IndianExpress.com, “Facebook uses a variety of encryption technologies to help people connect securely to our services, and we’re committed to continuing down this path. We are going to support sites using TLS, SSL, and HTTPS on the Internet.org Android app starting around June, but we don’t currently allow these protocols as part of the app or website because our existing proxying implementation would not allow us to proxy sites carrying encrypted traffic without applying what’s known as a ‘man-in-the-middle’ technique to otherwise protected traffic.”

Facebook says that the Android app will start to support “type of encrypted services” soon. While it looks like Facebook is working to get rid of encryption issues, there are other restrictions as well which are being questioned.

In addition to this, Faceobook says services should not use “VoIP, video, file transfer, high resolution photos, or high volume of photos.” Granted these are data heavy services, but by leaving them out a significant experience of the Internet is denied to those who are coming on board.

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns being raised with Internet.org is the privacy policy, which reads, “When you access a website or service through Internet.org, your mobile operator provides us with your phone number. We may collect and use your phone number to determine your eligibility to receive free services, to provide you with relevant offers and services from your operator and others, and to provide you with access to your Facebook account.” Many users might not be keen to hand over the mobile number to Facebook.

Given that digital literacy in India and other developing countries is very minimal, the privacy implications of Facebook’s Internet.org can’t be ignored, especially as it is aimed at those who are perhaps first time Internet users. With Facebook, privacy has always been flagged as a concern area and the ad data collection and cookie policy that the company released last year was also criticised for this very reason.

Now Internet.org is facing the same concerns. Facebook’s argument that it aims to help more users get online in the developing world is a fair one to make and by opening up Internet.org, the company has shown that it plans to give more app/ content creators the chance to log onto this platform.

Facebook says it has no intention of creating a walled garden of services for Internet.org users and rather hopes that the services will encourage users to explore the full potential of the Internet. The only problem is that Facebook’s own technical specifications right now are restricting this potential where Internet.org is concerned, even if it does help to get more people online.

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