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Internet.org opens to all developers after Net neutrality row

Developers hoping to build services for people using Internet.org -- which provides free basic Web services via mobile -- must follow three principles meant to bring more people online.

Internet.org mobile app
The Internet.org app provides free access to Web services to people across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Internet.org

Internet.org, the Facebook-driven initiative designed to bring people in emerging markets online, is opening its gates to anyone who's willing to play by the rules.

Facebook announced on Monday that it's opening the Internet.org development platform to entrepreneurs and developers who want to build services that integrate with Internet.org. The change is an important step towards addressing claims from critics that Internet.org is actually stifling a free and open Internet.

Internet.org partners with mobile networks to offer access to free basic Web services via the Internet.org mobile app and the Internet.org website, as well as through other partner mobile Web browsers. It is currently available in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and has connected millions of people who previously had little or no access to the Internet. Internet.org was announced in 2013 as part of a broader coalition with the likes of Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, and aims to bring Web access to the two-thirds of people around the world who aren't online.

So far, Internet.org has offered a few dozen Web services in each country, such as Wikipedia, Facebook Messenger, UNICEF's Facts of Life health site and local news sites. Internet.org mobile partners and Web services adhere to guidelines established by Facebook to ensure users receive free access and aren't hobbled by slow data speeds.

Internet.org has faced criticism because of Facebook's decision to handpick the companies and services that can use Internet.org's platform. Some critics, including many in India where Internet.org operates, argue that Facebook is delivering the millions of people it has brought online to its preferred services -- including its own social network and messaging offerings -- and limits the ability for other providers to access users. Those critics say Internet.org is in direct conflict to Net neutrality -- the idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally-- by providing special treatment to free services and harming competing providers that are operating on the Web, but can only be accessed outside of Internet.org.

"Internet.org doesn't block or throttle any other services, or create fast lanes," Zuckerberg wrote in an op-ed on India's Hindustan Times last month defending his service against those charges. "We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes."

Zuckerberg said that offering free services is useful when the goal is to get more people online. "If you can't afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all."

Still, protests have mounted and likely prompted Facebook's move on Monday to announce that its platform is now open to anyone who's willing to adhere to its guidelines. Those guidelines are driven by three core principles.

Firstly, Facebook said all supported services must allow for the "exploration of the broader Internet wherever possible." In other words, the services must not limit a person's ability to get online and see Web pages. Internet.org providers must also offer their services for free and require only minimal bandwidth. Facebook said that several high-bandwidth services, including VoIP offerings, like Skype, video sites and file-transfer platforms, won't be allowed into the Internet.org platform. Finally, sites and services built with Internet.org in mind must work on both feature phones and smartphones.

"We think these criteria will help us to connect more people faster, and add even greater value to people's lives," Facebook wrote in its blog post announcing the change.

Whether that will be enough to quell the Net neutrality unrest over Internet.org remains to be seen, but already the critics have chimed in. India-based Nikhil Pahwa, who founded online site Medianama, told Reuters in an interview on Monday that Internet.org is "effectively disadvantaging other companies and broader usage of the Web."

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.