Digital Deity or Digital Domination? Philanthropic intent raises questions on citizen’s digital rights

Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative that offers people in internet_org_3268349bdeveloping countries free mobile access to basic web services (Curtis 2015). Despite its philanthropic intentions, Internet.org has been criticised for building a “walled garden” in which users are confined to selected websites approved by Facebook and local ISPs (Walsh 2015).

Internet_org-App_1_2993368b

There is a concern that users, satisfied with their free access to this enclosed digital domain, may never move to the ‘real’ Internet and enjoy the privileges of freedom of expression, security, privacy and innovation – the principles of net neutrality (Post 2015). However, Bruce Sterling, a renowned US futurist and science fiction author, argues the ‘real’ Internet does not exist. Rather, vertically integrated data empires referred to as ‘stacks’ have independent ecosystems with their own rules and operating systems (Webstock 2013). Instead of being free, flourishing Internet citizens, users are “livestock” trapped in the data mines of these stacks (Webstock 2013).

In this way, even if people in developing countries upgrade to paid Internet services, they will continue to be exploited, monetised and controlled by the “private castles of cyberspace” (Webstock 2013). After all, the livestock can never completely escape the traps of the garden walls. At the same time, however, we should be fortunate to have restricted access than no Internet at all.

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Digital artefact:

There is a belief that Twitter is following Facebook down the walled garden path, becoming a closed ecosystem disconnected to the open web. This is evident through Twitter’s native image hosting and native video hosting that lures its “livestock” to spend more time in the stream and less time clicking out to other image-hosting sites. This creates a walled garden where interactions take place primarily on Twitter and gives users less of a reason to venture out onto the wilds of the Web.

While Twitter may indeed be trying to build its own private castle or skyscraper stack, I do believe that its vertical integration is a fundamental advantage of the service. Twitter allows strong niche communities to form around shared interests that is not available on the open, decentralised web. This relates to the long tail power distribution law, in which a small number of “hits” such as Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub dominate at the head of the demand curve, followed by a huge number of niches in the tail. Twitter has made it easier to find these niches and allows cat owners to have a dedicated space to celebrate cats. This form of community-building is enabled through Twitter’s public conversations exemplified in the range of hashtags utilised by users including #caturday, #ItsACatThing and #CatBoxSunday.

Social media guru Graham Todd describes Twitter as a “…cocktail party with an open invitation”. This is due to the ability to flow in and out of conversations and meet new people all the time that is not as easily achieved on Facebook, a more personal and closed ecosystem. Indeed, Twitter has allowed me to connect and build relationships with cat owners across the globe who are driving engagement with my content and who can potentially become ‘ambassadors’ for encouraging cat adoption. Without Twitter’s “livestock” and level of openness and sharing, I would not have been able to achieve such exposure and engagement. For cat enthusiasts, Twitter is a cyber-utopian dream!

Reference List

Curtis, S 2015, ‘What is Internet.org and will it really come to Europe?’, Telegraph, 15 April, accessed 6 September 2015, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/11537985/What-is-Internet.org-and-will-it-really-come-to-Europe.html>.

Post, D 2015, ‘Facebook, Internet.org and the net neutrality bugaboo’, Washington Post, weblog post, 17 August, accessed 6 September 2015, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/08/17/facebook-internet-org-and-the-net-neutrality-bugaboo/>.

Walsh, S 2015, ‘Internet.org: Human Rights and Vertical Integration in a Digital Era’, Global Partners Digital, weblog post, 8 June, accessed 6 September 2015, <http://www.gp-digital.org/gpd-update/internet-org-human-rights-and-vertical-integration-in-a-digital-era/>.

Webstock 2013, Webstock ’13: Bruce Sterling – What a feeling!, online video, 15 February, Vimeo, accessed 6 September 2015, <https://vimeo.com/63012862>.

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15 thoughts on “Digital Deity or Digital Domination? Philanthropic intent raises questions on citizen’s digital rights

  1. Hey, great post. It’s weird to think that Facebook has the potential to become an ISP of sorts.
    I actually came across an interesting piece of research this week about Facebook’s walled garden. There was a survey conducted in Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand where people claimed the didn’t use the internet but would then talk about how much time they spend on Facebook. It’s crazy to see the amount of influence that Facebook has.
    http://bit.ly/1DbSWnK

    • Hi Mathew. Thank you for commenting. The link you have provided is very interesting. As these findings reveal, for people using Internet.org, Facebook and Wikipedia are ‘the Internet’. In fact, it has even been referred to as the ‘Zuckernet’. These users are not able to use the Internet to expose local corruption, start their own businesses or share photos with distant family members. Even though both Internet.org and the ‘real’ Internet are restricted walled gardens, I don’t think we realise just how much freedom we have on the web compared to people in developing nations using Internet.org.

  2. Hey, great post. I really like your use of Net Neutrality as an example to strengthen your argument. It’s interesting that you say it’s better we have restricted internet access than none at all. Do you think if there was so much censorship on the internet that there was almost no point using it, that people would develop a ‘alternate’ internet? Do you really believe that humanity in this day and age would stand for such a disconnected life?

    • Hi Jordan. Thanks for your comment. You have raised some very interesting questions. In terms of your first question, although increased censorship is a potential threat to individual freedom, I don’t think this would stop people from using the Internet. However, in relation to your point about an ‘alternate’ Internet, there are very interesting things currently happening by people looking to create a more decentralised Internet resistant to censorship.

      For example, check out this article discussing the possibility of mesh networks designed to facilitate the free flow of information: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/the-promise-of-an-alternative-internet/372501/. There are even sub-reddits dedicated to exploring mesh networking: https://www.reddit.com/r/darknetplan.

      One of the best examples of mesh networking was after the Egyptian government attempted to shut off the internet in the whole nation. The Open Mesh Project emerged with the goal of providing open and free communications to every citizen in the world regardless of national boundaries.

      Another example was after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Serval project was launched in Australia with the objective to create a disaster-proof wireless network that relied exclusively on the connectivity of mobile devices.

      Such relatively small-scale, localised projects are beginning to reveal the social benefits of mesh networking in terms of user autonomy and community building. Although there are a number of technical and legal problems facing mesh networking, the creation a truly free Internet may be closer to realisation than we think!

  3. Hi Giverny,
    I like the way you have tackled the lecture topic this week, and think that your exploration of Internet.org was not only insightful but relevant. It is quite obvious you have done a lot of research into the area of net neutrality and the resources you incorporated into your post were a great way to enhance and strengthen your idea. I also think your meme was a great way to add to the livestock metaphor. I personally think that having a limited access to the internet is better than having no connection at all, but at the same time I can see the perspectives of those who believe the internet should be a free and open space. Whilst Internet.org might be a great way to introduce the internet to areas which would otherwise have no access, I don’t think it would be effective in countries such as Australia where internet usage is so prominent. Could you imagine the communal uproar if internet access was restricted in such a way?! Great post, very thought provoking!!

    • Thank you for your lovely comments, Melissa. It is really interesting that you mention the idea of Internet.org being brought to Australia. Upon researching this topic, I found that Mark Zuckerberg actually wants to roll the initiative out across the world and even in Europe (you can check out the article here: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/facebook-will-bring-free-internet-to-europe-says-mark-zuckerberg-10178616.html).

      I agree with you, the initiative wouldn’t be as effective in developed countries with high rates of Internet penetration. However, whilst Internet.org is prioritising the countries with the most unconnected people, there are still people in developed western countries who aren’t connected due to poverty and inequality. Internet.org may be an effective way to improve these people’s access to health information, access to education and jobs.

      As you mention, I think it would be really interesting to see how people in developed countries react to this initiative.

  4. Hi Giverny,

    I really agree with your point that people in developing nations having limited access to Internet services is better than no access at all. This is important to remember because I believe it will help the citizens of these countries transition into the digital economy more seamlessly.

    One of the biggest shifts in the digital world recently has been the move from the wide-open Web to semi-closed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display. While these semi-closed platforms, such as apps, are becoming increasingly popular, the ability to access the open web is still available to those who chose to do so. This 2010 article from wired.com explains the shift to semi-closed platforms quite nicely.
    http://www.wired.com/2010/08/ff_webrip/

    Interesting and thought provoking post, well done. Ill be keeping an eye on your blog for sure!

    • Hi Eddie! Thank you for your comment. I really enjoyed reading the article you provided. I have never actually considered the shift from browsers to semi-closed platforms such as apps, so this was very interesting.

      A relevant example for me would be using the SMH app on my iPad rather than accessing the site directly through my browser. I think it would be interesting to see statistics on how major sites such as the SMH are accessed by users. After all, apps are a direct link to access content. They are much easier and simplified than using a web browser. I think this ‘form’ of the Internet can benefit many groups in society, particularly young children learning to use technologies and elderly people who may find apps, with their large pictures, bold text and user-friendly design, a better alternative to web browsers.

  5. Pingback: Can a campaign calling on the collective strength of the masses succeed? Anonymous say you should bank on it! |

    • Haha that is so true Jacqueline! Those ads just wanted us to believe that Facebook is the only thing connecting people around the world. I did not know about the rebranding. I wonder whether the criticism that Internet.org attracted about violating the principles of net neutrality also prompted this rebranding. As you mention, ‘Free Basics by Facebook’ sounds less dominating than Internet.org, which brings to mind the idea that Facebook is trying to become ‘the Internet’ and control access in all parts of the world.

  6. Super informative blog post, I found it especially useful as I hope to be examining Facebook’s internet.org initiative in my final research project. What is so interesting about all this to me is the way initiatives like these appear on the surface to be very philanthropic, yet if you look a little deeper, it can almost be seen as companies like Facebook taking advantage of inequality. They’re harnessing it for their own good – creating a walled garden of sorts to help them tackle the challenge of the attention economy.

    • Thank you for your comment Emma. I agree, it is not ‘the Internet’ that Mark Zuckerberg is bringing to the world, it’s the internet through the walled garden of Facebook. Connecting the world is only worthwhile to Facebook if it can dictate how these connections are made.

  7. Great blog post, enjoyed the comparison between Twitter and Facebook on net neutrality. Your articulation is formal and academically supported with excellent sources, yet still easy to follow and gave me something more to take away from this week’s lecture topic. I find it fascinating that so many people, including myself, have chosen to target Facebook in their analysis, as it is the most ‘walled’ platform of the social media world, yet boasts such a flexible user experience.

    • Hi Lauren. Thank you for your comment. I also think that Facebook is a popular example of walled gardens because it is something we can relate to. We all enjoy the convenience and ease of use of Facebook and its ability to connect us with our friends and family. I think the value we derive from Facebook on a daily basis means that we don’t typically consider its restrictions. Perhaps we are also just willing to sacrifice our freedom for access to the abundance of content that is readily available on the service.

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