Global Civil Society to Facebook: Comes With Too Many Strings Attached

| May 18, 2015

CIPPIC has joined over 65 civil society organizations from around the world in an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg regarding its initiative. is Facebook's portal for mobile Internet access in developing countries. The portal is essentially a mobile app through which individuals can access other Internet sites, after first passing through Facebook's servers. The portal is zero rated, meaning that Facebook has entered into deals with wireless providers around the world that exclude usage from data charges. While Facebook presents this as an altruistic initiative designed to get the next 3 billion Internet users connected, many have questioned whether it is truly altruistic or simply an attempt to place Facebook at the centre of the future Internet, establishing it as gatekeeper to downstream content and innovation. Meanwhile, the initiative detracts from other charitable efforts designed to provide true connectivity capacity in developing countries and, as domestic telcos are forced to shoulder the costs of the initiative, it is not clear what benefit Facebook provides to developing countries at all.

Regardless of its motivation, Facebook's leaves much to be desired. Where it is active, individuals already think of Facebook as 'the Internet'. However, the Internet provided by Facebook is a highly curated environment, which only allows sites pre-approved by Facebook that operate on Facebook's terms. In this sense, it threatens the expressive and innovative force of the Internet, which has always relied on the capacity to innovate and express without permission. It is, indeed, this 'innovation without permission' model that allowed Facebook itself to supplant MySpace as the world's leading social networking site - Facebook's ability to reach its audience was not dependent on MySpace's (or anyone else's) permission. Additionally, all traffic passes through Facebook's servers, raising concerns it will in time feed into Facebook's broader profiling activities while acting as a one-stop hub for state censorship initiatives. simply comes with too many strings attached.

If Facebook truly wished to devote its time and resources into facilitating global connectivity, there are far simpler methods for doing so. Facebook is currently spending significant time and resources on developing compression protocols and standards that will ensure a low data footprint for websites who wish to participate in This will allow for Internet access in an ecosystem where data networks are incapable of supporting immense amounts of data and end devices have minimal storage and computing capacity. But history has taught us that the most effective (both from a cost perspective and from a functionality perspective) to develop such mechanisms is through the open standards bodies that have guided the Internet's development since its earliest days. Facebook is a frequent participant in these standards bodies. It should initiate a process at the W3C (responsible for HTML  - the markup language of websites) or the IETF (responsible for creating technical documents that influence the design of the Internet's communication protocols) that would create an accepted standard for websites with a low data footprint. This could include a mechanism for compressing data, a preference for low-data image formats, and many other features. It could also include a protocol for encryption that is less intensive in terms of processing power. Any website meeting the requirements of the standard could them be zero rated, as its data footprint would be sufficiently low so as to impose minimal costs onto the telcos providing mobile data services.

The use of open standards would not only improve the legitimacy of the initiative, but it would also avoid all of the gatekeeper and centralization concerns that arise from the current Facebook-centric model. As all '' traffic will not be routed through Facebook's own ecosystem, that ecosystem will not provide a one-stop shop for censorship and surveillance. As any website could unilaterally meet the resulting low-data standard, concerns that Facebook might abuse its role as gatekeeper to the low-data Internet would be alleviated. Finally, the use of standards bodies will allow for broader input into and transparency of the resulting protocols that will help ensure these develop without bias and in a manner that is responsive to web services. The use of open standards bodies would also allow Facebook to take the resources it is currently using to develop proprietary compression mechanisms and to donate them to Internet infrastructure initiatives in developing countries, so as to improve the robustness of these networks. Facebook should therefore scrap its centralization compression scheme and being the process of creating a truly open and fair low-data Internet.


Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg from over 65 global civil society groups regarding [PDF]

  • Access, Policy Brief on Zero Rating Schemes [PDF]
  • OpenMedia, "Zuckerberg's will control what billions do online" []
  • Peter Nowak, "Facebook Getting Brazen in Efforts to Split the Internet", [Alphabeatic]
  • Josh Levy, "Facebook's Isn't the Internet, It's Facebooknet" [Wired]
  • Tim Karr, "Global Internet Activists Give Thumbs Down to Facebook's" [Moyers]
  •, "Myths and Facts" [FAQ]
May 18, 2015
Tamir Israel, Staff Lawyer, CIPPIC