Facebook takes off into space

Facebook has announced it will be partnering with Eutelsat, a French satellite internet operator, to transmit internet connections to offline parts of sub-Saharan Africa from late 2016.

Although it now claims a mindblowing 1.5 billion monthly active users, Facebook has long been looking to emerging markets to sustain its astonishing growth. As part of its wider ranging internet.org initiative, it will bring internet access to parts of the world where it was restricted, with selected services – including Wikipedia, BBC News, Facebook and some local news providers – made available via a dedicated app, without any data charge applying.

Facebook’s mission is to connect the world and we believe that satellites will play an important role in addressing the significant barriers that exist in connecting the people of Africa,” according to Chris Daniels, the head of internet.org.

It’s not all been plain sailing though, with increasing criticism coming Facebook’s way around net neutrality, and whether it should be allowed to specify the content that is accessible through the free app. In response to the criticism, Facebook renamed the Internet.org apps and website as “Free Basics by Facebook,” and opened up to more developers and web services.

Back in May 2015, in an open letter addressed to Mark Zuckerberg (well worth a read if you’ve got the time), a worldwide consortium of advocacy groups said, “it is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services.”

Internet.org still exists as a concept, however, and is pushing forward with the previously announced Aquila, a huge solar-powered drone providing internet access to developing countries. This looks like it is only designed to compete with Google’s Project Loon, which plans to use hot air balloons for the same function.

It’s a fascinating battle to see who can bring internet connectivity to the developing world (whether they want it or not), but the question remains as to whether this is really for the benefit of the world, or purely for the commercial benefit of Facebook, Google and the services with which they are associated.

One small step toward a truly connected world, or a giant leap towards hindering net neutrality and the freedom to access whatever information you want? Let us know in the comments below, or via @iftweeter.

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