In countries like Zambia, Tanzania, or Kenya, where very few have access to the Internet, Facebook is bringing its own version of the net: Internet.org, an app that gives mobile users free access to certain sites such as Google, Wikipedia and, of course, Facebook.
While the initiative has clearly positive goals, it’s also been criticized as an “imperialistic” push for Facebook colonies, where novice Internet.org users will grow up thinking their restricted version of the web is the real internet.
To fight against that possibility, a 20-year-old developer from Paraguay is working on an app that tunnels the “regular” internet through Facebook Messenger, one of the services free to use on Internet.org’s app. This allows Internet.org users to establish a link to the outside, unrestricted internet, circumventing restrictions.
Matias Insaurralde has been working on this project since 2013, with the simple goal of giving his fellow countrymen (Paraguay is an Internet.org testbed) as well as others, the chance to escape the walled garden of Internet.org.
“Giving access to just a few sites in a country that historically had bad connectivity and very high costs sounds like a bad joke.”
“I hope to provide an alternative access to the Internet (or the rest of it)—or at least raise concern about the disadvantages of this type of campaigns,” Insaurralde tells Motherboard. “Giving access to just a few sites in a country that historically had bad connectivity and very high costs sounds like a bad joke.”
Paraguay is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of internet access. According to the country’s government, 37 percent of the population had access to the Internet in 2013, and only around 50 percent are expected to have it by the end of 2015.
But access is expensive. In 2012, according to a study, the average price of a 1mbps connection (which is 10 times slower than the average broadband connection in the US) cost $40 a month in Paraguay, the highest price in South America after Bolivia.
With this app, Insaurralde hopes to help change that.
The app, called Facebook Tunnel, is still in the prototype stage, but Insaurralde says he tested it with his own smartphone and Internet.org app—and it works. All he needs now, he says, is to port the app from Linux to other platforms and make a working client.
The app essentially takes advantage of Facebook Messenger’s protocol, establishing a link between an Internet.org user with limited Internet access, and someone who has an unrestricted internet connection. The person with the unfettered internet connection routes his access to the other person with limited access, acting as a proxy.
“You could establish a list of friends, or select friends, who will allow you to browse the internet through them—like trusted people,” Insaurralde tells Motherboard.
This is not a completely novel idea. Apps like Lantern or Google’s uProxy use a similar approach to help people that live in countries with heavy internet censorship, such as China or Iran, to establish a peer-to-peer connection with someone on the outside world who acts as proxy to the unrestricted Internet.
Internet.org is “a terrifying combination of opening access while doing it in the most walled-garden way imaginable.”
It might take a few months, Insaurralde says, but ever since his project got some attention on the programming forum Hacker News over the weekend, he has received many emails from people offering to help.
Adam Fisk, the lead developer of Lantern, tells Motherboard that this is a feasible project that can help against the restrictions of Internet.org, which is “a terrifying combination of opening access while doing it in the most walled-garden way imaginable.”
“It's the filter bubble to an extreme, with Wikipedia sprinkled on top,” he tells Motherboard.
While it could technically work, Fisk notes that Facebook Tunnel “would be slow and would rely on the person on the other end running the software.” And the big qustion, he says, is whether someone using Internet.org even knows someone “on the other side” who could provide unrestricted internet access.
The success of this project, however, will ultimately depend on whether Internet.org and its local partnering providers will turn a blind eye to people using this app, according to Insaurralde. Internet.org did not answer to Motherboard’s request for comment.
“If I happen to build an easy and flexible tool for non-technical users, it could become massive,” he says. “And they will work hard to stop it.”
For Josh Levy, the advocacy director at Access, a digital rights group, that would be a mistake.
"We'd hate to see ISPs and Facebook police these workarounds, which would show that they care less about users' access to the internet and more about the terms of the deals, open internet be damned," Levy told Motherboard.
If they do, Internet.org users will be back to square one, with their free internet connection in the Facebook walled digital garden.