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Does Facebook’s Executive Shake-up Signal the End of Internet.org?

Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitious plan to service the world with free web access was stalled by myriad problems. The company’s latest personnel moves might sideline the initiative for good.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced an executive shake-up at the company which included a couple of major personnel moves. The most notable departure? Chris Cox, who is is credited as being instrumental in the 2006 creation of the News Feed, a public stream of posts that became one of Facebook’s most significant updates and visible functions. In light of Zuckerberg’s just-announced pivot toward privacy-minded measures like direct and encrypted messaging, the forecast for the News Feed feature is decidedly cloudy. And so Cox is moving on.

But it’s the departure of Chris Daniels, another exec, that seems to cement the utter failure of a major Facebook project: Internet.org, its much-maligned internet accessibility project.

Internet.org was launched in 2013 and inspired by a previous Zuck manifesto about getting the entire world online. Daniels, part of Facebook’s business development team, was enlisted to lead the charge. Zuckerberg’s goal was to provide internet access to everyone, whether or not they could afford to pay for it. At launch, Zuckerberg said it would take five to 10 years for Internet.org to cover the planet. He wanted Facebook to be the gateway to the internet.

In many ways Internet.org sounded like a nonprofit. It was intended for use in underdeveloped markets, where access to the internet was either unavailable, prohibitively expensive, or too slow to be useful. Facebook forged early partnerships with countries like Pakistan and Indonesia, and touted its success in helping people in previously underserved regions access online healthcare service. By many accounts, it had the markings of a charitable organization.

But rather than a gateway, Internet.org started to feel more like a gatekeeper. For starters, it was headed by Daniels, whose job was not a part of Facebook’s advocacy efforts, but rather to build the company’s business and to maintain profitability. Put simply, Daniels’s goal was to increase the number of Facebook users—a task Internet.org could help accomplish. In order to receive internet access, those in need were first required to download the Free Basics app from Facebook. Critics complained Internet.org worked by exploiting poor countries. There was also the issue of censorship: Because Facebook operated as the pipeline to the internet for these users, it also became an arbiter of content. (Facebook said it chose to deny access to certain websites because their data would overwhelm their servers.) A lengthy list of internet advocates derided Facebook for restricting content. India, Facebook’s most promising and public partner, backed out of the proposition entirely. Then, Internet.org stopped offering its services in Myanmar following reports of the platform’s role in spreading hate speech across the country; it pulled out of other developing nations, including Anguilla and El Salvador, around the same time. What also soon became clear was that many Internet.org users were using it only to lower their internet bills, not to gain new access to the web.

In short, the world saw through the Internet.org veneer and identified the service for what it really was: a business strategy, headed by a Facebook biz dev guy, that gave the social network even more control over how people experience the web. It might be cynical to suggest that Internet.org was intended to be a malicious bait-and-switch; more likely, it can be cited as another example of how even the purest of ideas at the company can morph into user-acquisition schemes. The daily active user statistic is increasingly important to Facebook to prove its worth (and maybe relevance). In recent years, Facebook split apart its various products into separate apps to drive user numbers, added new design elements to Instagram that push users to Facebook, and even created an insecure one-click login tool. Whatever the intent, Internet.org drew waning interest and investment, and in May 2018, Daniels was transitioned to WhatsApp, a much safer candidate for user growth. One month later, Facebook announced it would kill its internet-delivering drones, though Internet.org was not, and still isn’t, shuttered.

Six years after it launched, Internet.org is seldom spoken of; Facebook hasn’t issued a press release about Zuckerberg’s passion project since 2015, and seemingly stopped talking about it altogether in 2016 after it failed in India over concerns it violated net neutrality rules. (Facebook did not return my email inquiring about Internet.org updates.) Each year at Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference, mentions of Internet.org are fewer and fewer. At next month’s annual conference, it’s very likely audiences will hear nothing about it at all.