Internet.org is the Facebook funded and directed initiative to increase global connectivity. The name “Internet.org” confuses some, since it sounds like a neutral, non-profit initiative. It is in fact an initiative of Facebook. Current site branding refers to “Internet.org by Facebook”.
On launch of Internet.org in 2013, much of the media attention related to connectivity issues, in particular comparing Facebook’s Project Aquila (drones) to Google’s Project Loon (balloons). Internet.org continues to pursue new connectivity options (although with setbacks, including the explosion of a 2016 SpaceX rocket carrying an Israeli satellite to be used by Facebook in Africa).
More recently, Internet.org is more closely associated with the Facebook Free Basics program, which provides free access to Facebook and other selected content in over 60 developing countries. In these efforts, Facebook is simultaneously lauded for subsidizing access while criticized for restricting content. Facebook employs a system for deciding which third-party content will be included — such as wikipedia, wikihow, education sites, health sites (but not including content from direct competitors). Internet.org also offers access for app developers to the Innovation Lab at Facebook Headquarters in California. The lab mimics bandwidth and device constraints in many global environments.
Controversies around Free Basics became particularly intense in India, to the point where Facebook cancelled the service there in 2016.
Internet.org describes many legitimate motivations for expanding global broadband access. Its impressive progress, however, is also clearly in Facebook’s corporate interest. In many locales “Facebook” is synonymous with “the internet”. For example, Research in 2015 showed that 65% of Nigerians, 61% of Indonesians, and 58% of Indians agreed with the statement “Facebook is the internet.” (Only 5% of Americans agreed.)
Facebook’s penetration in developing countries outside of Internet.org and Free Basics also includes WhatsApp, which it acquired in 2014. In many countries WhatsApp is the dominant app for new users.
Facebooks metrics show that it is having great success penetrating new markets. Facebook grew from one billion daily users to two billion since 2013. Only 41 million of those new users are from the US and Canada.