Zuckerberg pledges to connect refugee camps to the Internet

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has pledged his support to the “Connect the World” campaign working to make universal Internet access a reality by 2020. This initiative will push countries from around the world, with assistance from the United Nations, to expand Internet connectivity to all of their citizens. But what of the many millions of people current living without a country they can call home?
The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees said in June that there were almost 60 million refugees or “internally displaced persons” around the world in 2014 — the highest number seen since World War II. Some risk their lives to seek asylum in other countries, only to be turned away or even attacked once they’ve arrived at their destinations. Many other refugees never even reach that point.
The camps in which these refugees often find themselves have been described as “hellish.” They are also dangerous: The United Nations warned in 2013 that hundreds of thousands of refugees were at risk as winter storms hounded the Middle East. Even more-established camps, such as the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, are defined by complaints about unreliable access to water and electricity.
Given all that, efforts to offer Internet access to these camps might seem strange. What good is Facebook in a place where electricity is only available in the night, food is farmed around ramshackle buildings, and many people struggle to survive? Well, according to Bill Frelick, the Refugee Rights Program Director at Human Rights Watch, having access to the Internet is more important than one might think.
“I think this is an important and quite worthwhile initiative. I have definitely interviewed many refugees whose main preoccupation is the need (and difficulty) in communicating with separated family members,” he says. “After taking dangerous sea voyages the first thing most refugees and migrants want to do is to tell relatives that they have survived. When communication is cut off, refugees’ anxiety becomes palpable.”
Zuckerberg preemptively responded to one of the key criticisms of this effort: That Facebook is trying to appear selfless, when really this project serves the company’s goal of having as many people as possible use its service. “It’s not all altruism,” the New York Times reported him saying. “We all benefit when we are more connected.” He knows Facebook will come out ahead; Frelick says affected refugees will, too.
Still, there were will be questions about this initiative. Will Internet connectivity be provided through Internet.org, the organization Facebook set up to provide Internet access in remote areas, or some other group? On what devices will refugees be able to access the Internet? Will the access be free, or will it be paid for by refugees or rights organizations? So far, little about the plan has been revealed to the public.
Providing the connections via Internet.org could prove to be a problem. The organization has been criticized in the past for violating the principles of net neutrality by giving preference to some websites and services over others. It was also criticized for not allowing the services it enables to encrypt user data, but it has since enabled encryption in its Android software and its primary Web portal.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which previously criticized Internet.org for the perception that it violates the spirit of net neutrality, declined to comment for this post. I reached out to Facebook and Internet.org to get more information about their plans (and to see if the latter group will be involved in this effort) but haven’t heard back. I will update this post if they respond to my email after publication.
Zuckerberg acknowledged the difficulty of his task in a New York Times op-ed written with his partner, Bono. “It’s one thing to say we should connect the world. The real trick is how,” they wrote. “There’s no simple solution or silicon bullet.” Given the current state of refugee camps around the world, and the problems that have plagued Internet.org since its founding, that might be an understatement.

Facebook’s free internet.org portal opens in India

Facebook’s internet.org portal, which emerging-market carriers offer for free in order to give new customers a taste of the web, has rolled out in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Mahararashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana. Provided by Reliance Communications, the app includes free access to almost 40 services and information sources. If someone wants to click through to the open web, they need to start paying. This scenario exemplifies the mixed impact of “zero-rating” particular content in emerging markets: it gets people online for the first time, offering potentially life-changing services from job search to farming information, but it also raises net neutrality issues by promoting the idea of Facebook’s portal effectively being the internet.

Canada cracks down on zero-rating in two net neutrality rulings

The list of countries that find zero-rating to be a violation of net neutrality just keeps on growing, with Canada the latest to crack down on the practice.

“Zero-rating” or “positive price discrimination” refers to carriers providing certain services or apps for free or at a cheaper rate than they charge for regular internet traffic. Many (including me) see this as a net neutrality violation, because it treats different services unequally and damages the ability of non-zero-rated services to find an audience.

It’s a much more subtle net neutrality violation than straight-out blocking or throttling certain services, though, which is why some – such as the European Commission – don’t tend to see it in that light.

Apparently, Canada does see zero-rating as a threat to the “open internet”. On Thursday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued a decision against carriers [company]Bell Mobility[/company] and [company]Vidéotron[/company], which were exempting their own Bell Mobile TV and illico.tv mobile TV services from their regular data plans (for a small monthly fee of around $5) while counting traffic for rival services against those data caps. Video content is, of course, about as data-heavy as it gets.

Vidéotron has until the end of March to confirm that it has withdrawn its mobile TV app as it promised it would, and Bell has until April 29 to stop its violations. According to the CRTC, the result will be “an open and fair marketplace for mobile TV services, enabling innovation and choice for Canadians.”

Pro-net-neutrality organization OpenMedia.ca reacted with delight, saying the ruling “sets a precedent for mobile providers across Canada.” The group quoted telecoms researcher Ben Klass, who filed the original complaint over Bell’s behavior, as saying:

In a world where Bell could charge 800% more for competing services it seemed unlikely that innovation could thrive. It’s heartening to see the CRTC side with Canadians and strike down this unfair practice.

Over the last week, Dutch and Slovenian regulations have hammered carriers for zero-rating violations, although those cases involved the favored services of commercial partners such as [company]HBO[/company] and [company]Deezer[/company], rather than the carriers’ in-house efforts. Chile has also banned operators from offering services such as [company]Twitter[/company] and [company]Facebook[/company] for free, and Norway’s regulators have advised the same.

A study by bandwidth management firm Allot Communications last year found that half of mobile carriers around the world are now zero-rating certain traffic, most frequently Facebook’s. The practice is also key to developing-world schemes such as Facebook’s Internet.org – they’ve struck deals with carriers that see selected services offered for free, with the idea being that people will start paying for the wider web once they’ve seen what it has to offer.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg to headline Mobile World Congress this year

Facebook(s fb) takes mobile very seriously — that’s where its growth lies — so it’s no surprise that Mark Zuckerberg has just been announced as headline keynote speaker on day one of next month’s Mobile World Congress. According to the GSMA, which runs the Barcelona shindig, Zuck will opine on “the importance of extending the benefits of ubiquitous internet access to the unconnected world.” Expect updates on the internet.org initiative and perhaps news on Facebook’s own efforts to extend its advertising humanitarian reach to the world’s needy.

How Facebook plans to make internet.org happen

In a 70-page white paper released Monday, Facebook, Qualcomm and Ericsson tried to connect the app and cloud world with carriers as part of the internet.org effort. Even if this doesn’t bring broadband to all, it’s a necessary conversation.