Does Facebook’s Internet.Org Help or Hurt Emerging Markets?

Introducing the Internet.org App from Facebook on Vimeo.

In its latest project to expand Internet connectivity in developing countries, Facebook-backed Internet.org announced that it’s partnering with Airtel to launch an Android app to provide free, basic Internet service to Airtel customers in Zambia. With the new app, optimized to work on the lower-end feature phones that are popular in emerging markets, customers will be able to access Facebook, AccuWeather, Wikipedia, Google Search, local news, health information, women’s rights resources, and information about employment without incurring data charges.

Only about a third of the world’s population has access to the Internet, and the Internet.org group was ostensibly founded to improve accessibility and awareness among those who aren’t currently connected to the internet. In a post on the group’s website, product management director Guy Rosen wrote:

“Over 85 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with existing cellular coverage, yet only about 30 percent of the total population accesses the Internet. Affordability and awareness are significant barriers to Internet adoption for many and today we are introducing the Internet.org app to make the internet accessible to more people by providing a set of free basic services.”

The full list of resources that customers will be able to access through the free Android app, at Internet.org, or within the Facebook for Android app are: AccuWeather, Airtel, eZeLibrary, Facebook, Facts for Life, Google Search, Go Zambia Jobs, Kokoliko, MAMA (Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action), Messenger, Wikipedia, WRAPP (Women’s Rights App), and Zambia uReport. Facebook told TechCrunch that content providers don’t need to be official Internet.org partners, which could explain the otherwise odd inclusion of Google Search in the free services.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced Internet.org last year, and in 2010 began the Project Zero initiative to provide free access to a streamlined version of Facebook to users in some emerging markets. The new Internet.org app takes the idea a step farther, and looks to give users access to basic services, plus enough of a taste of the internet that they’ll be likely to want more.

Local carrier Airtel is providing the data, likely in the hope that customers who access the app on their phones will see the value of having internet access, and decide to pay for a data package. Similarly, the Internet.org group sees Facebook partnering with a number of different companies on projects in a variety of developing countries. In Rwanda, SocialEDU is a free online education platform created with edX and and based on a mobile app integrated with Facebook. Nokia committed to offering affordable smartphones, and the Rwandan government agreed to offer financing to help schools implement the program.

In a partnership with Ericsson, Internet.org created an Innovation Lab for developers to test apps intended for communities with limited bandwidth. Internet.org is also partnering with Unilever to research connectivity solutions for communities in rural India. Facebook’s own Connectivity Lab will work with Internet.org to bring internet access to developing countries via drones, satellites, and lasers, in a move that looks like a direct response to Google’s Project Loon, a plan to use a fleet of satellites to expand free Internet access to areas of the developing world by connecting areas that are currently beyond the reach of cellular networks.

The idea is that increased Internet connectivity opens up opportunities for education and the possibility for developing economies to get a boost in productivity and job creation. However, critics of Facebook’s motivations have repeatedly said that Internet.org is not an honest, altruistic effort to conquer the digital divide. They say that instead, Internet.org’s projects are conceived to grow Facebook’s reach in emerging markets — something that the Android app will certainly achieve by making Facebook free to access for Zambians. Even those consumers who decide to purchase a data plan after getting a taste of the internet through the free app are likely to remain Facebook users, since they’ll have been in Facebook’s ecosystem since the start of their experience with the Internet.

Internet.org’s local partner for the app, Airtel, also has a vested interest in the launch of the app. The carrier is likely hoping that the app will help spread awareness of what consumers can learn and do with access to the Internet, and influence more consumers to pay for data packages to get more than what they can access for free through the Internet.org app. TechCrunch learned that Airtel pays for the initial free access, and if the carrier does succeed in gaining paying customers, the Internet.org app is expected to roll out in other countries and with other partnering carriers.

However, the app is a limited solution that sees Facebook trying to leapfrog ahead of actual solutions for accessibility. A major barrier to connectivity in emerging markets is the high cost of data, and even a report by Internet.org recently noted that customers in emerging markets spend 12 times the percentage of their per-capita GDP as consumers in the UK or U.S. The high cost of data is detrimental not only to the rate of connectivity, but to the efforts of app developers looking to reach specific markets. While Facebook is able to make deals with carriers like Airtel to provide free access to its app, small developers and content providers are unable to do the same.

The Internet.org app does make internet access to a limited set of basic resources more universally affordable — i.e., free to anyone with a feature phone. But it also introduces Internet.org and Facebook as a gatekeeper. Those who rely on the app for Internet access depend on Internet.org’s choices of what to make available. The group could decide to block specific Google searches or prohibit access to certain sections of Wikipedia, and consumers would have no recourse.

In a way, the app opens up the way for a new digital divide: between a free, limited Internet that provides access to fewer services and less information for those who aren’t able to pay, and the wide-open Internet available to someone who can pay for a data plan. While it’s undoubtedly a good thing to provide people with basic Internet services in an age when connectivity is considered a basic right, it’s also worth questioning whether Internet.org’s method is the right way to do it.

More From Tech Cheat Sheet: