Thursday, 7 May 2015

Facebook’s Internet.org Does Not Provide the Security Users Deserve

Facebook's Zuckerberg
In 2013, a Facebook-led initiative launched Internet.org, a free, barebones version of the internet for those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America who would otherwise go without. At the time, Facebook CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg explained the project as such: “There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy. Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it.” Internet.org invites users in places such as Colombia, Ghana and Indonesia to check job postings, access health information, and connect via Facebook, but has offered little else. Conceptually, Internet.org makes a lot of sense; in practice, concerns have been raised about whether its limited content constitutes access to the “knowledge economy” or just the Facebook economy.

In response, users are about to see a more robust Internet.org. On Monday, Facebook announced the arrival of the Internet.org Platform, an open program for developers to integrate their services with Internet.org. The announcement included an impassioned, egalitarian plea from Zuckerberg himself: “Everyone is welcome to join. It’s not exclusive to any mobile operator or company. Now, we had to start somewhere so we launched first with partners who wanted to work with us on this mission to connect the world, but we’ll work with anyone who wants to join us. No company pays to be included in Internet.org. No operator is paid to offer these services.” 

Zuckerberg is working hard to rebrand Internet.org as a place for everyone because he knows it is anything but. Internet.org has a long list of requirements for compatibility: content, for example, cannot utilize JavaScript, video or large images (yes, this goes for Facebook too). Furthermore, the fine print on Internet.org’s submission page clearly states, “Submission and/or approval by Facebook does not guarantee that your site(s) will be made available through Internet.org.” Internet.org may be about to expand its offerings, but Facebook remains very much in control of what those offerings will be.

Of greater consequence, Internet.org is completely unencrypted, save for its Android App. Services submitted with SSL/TLS/HTTPS will be relegated to the aforementioned app; Internet.org as it exists via any other platform has no regard for user privacy. 

Users should not underestimate the significance of this fact. Zuckerberg has positioned Internet.org as the only available web connection for two-thirds of the world’s population and he takes no responsibility in providing a secure, private connection along with it. The developed world, on the verge of accepting encryption as the smart and safe approach to the internet, has given its neighbors a no win situation—either use Internet.org and let Facebook track your every move while you hand your financial information to hackers, or don’t touch the internet at all. Even the service’s technical guidelines admit that this is a problem deserving of a solution; if Zuckerberg were guided by the humanitarian aims he claims, he would not ask the majority of the world’s population to forego their rights to privacy.

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