Everything starts with zero

I read a bit about how Internet.org and other so-called "zero-rated" services in India today. The general idea is that services provide free internet service or data to those without it but the service only includes a limited number of sites. Most of these services actually use the existing data networks but negotiate with the data carriers to provide free content. Wikipedia Zero is one such program: users can access Wikipedia content without data charges.  Internet.org* is a Facebook project, so it encourages carriers to provide access to Facebook (among other sites, including Bing, strangely enough) for free.

It's difficult to see most of these efforts as charity. A few recent editorials, including a brief Cory Doctorow comment in Boing Boing, have been very critical, claiming that they give "...the world's poorest an Internet that's been radically pruned to a sliver of what the rest of the world gets for free." It's true - these programs aren't contributing to the existence of a free, open, unrestricted Internet. They're probably just marketing programs targeting the world's fastest-growing emerging market. If internet access is a basic human right, it's difficult to say that these programs help to fulfill that right. 

Then again, what should we expect from ostensible acts of charity? Should they treat the symptoms or cure the disease? The Boing Boing crew would argue, as they have for DRM, that anything short of total freedom is a step backward. I have to agree that providing what's essentially freemium internet isn't ideal but working toward global net neutrality defeats its own purpose if most people can't even access that Neutral Net. At worst, criticism of zero-rated services can sound a bit like some of the traditional arguments against gun control regulations (i.e., "restricting guns won't stop violent crime so why should we even bother"). Restricted access to a limited pile of data may not change anyone's life but it's not a bad place to start.

Facebook will be old news within the next decade anyway, right?

*I'd link to their site but it's hardly informative (and startlingly purple, though that's more quirky than offensive). Try the WP article.