Facebook’s Internet.org program has become increasingly controversial and raises some pretty knotty problems about the meaning of “net neutrality” and the unusual nature of the market for Internet access around the world.

Here’s the basic idea behind the program. FB has developed a mobile phone app that gives users access to a small “walled garden” of Internet content — including a slimmed-down (no videos/photos/graphics, and no advertisements) version of Facebook itself. It then makes deals with ISPs in developing countries, under which the ISP agrees to eliminate its usual data transmission fees for all data that come in through this app — “zero rating” this content, in the current jargon. The idea is that there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who have cellphones who are not using the Internet because they’re unable or unwilling to pay the ISP’s additional Internet access charges, over and above the charges for basic cell service. The ISPs get to offer their customers a nice new offering at no additional cost to the customer, and Facebook gets to show people who are not now connected to the Net how much they’re missing.

It’s either:

(a) a “historic opportunity to improve the lives of billions of people by “connect[ing] the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have Internet access,”  a kind of “on-ramp” to full Internet access that will “introduce people to the value of the Internet through more than 100 free basic services globally,” or

But — hyperbole aside — which is it? A generous subsidy to give hundreds of millions of people a look at the wonders that the Internet can provide for them? Or (as India’s telecom ministry recently found after a preliminary inquiry) invidious discrimination against those Internet sites that are not included within the walls of the garden, in violation of the non-discrimination principles of “net neutrality”?

My starting position is that the burden of persuasion is on the critics here — based on the simple-minded notion that people are, generally, better off getting something at no cost than they are, all other things being equal, not getting those things. And the critics haven’t persuaded me on this one.

There seem to be two main lines of attack. First, there’s concern, as Susan Crawford puts it, that “Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Wikipedia become ‘the Internet’ for the users of mobile data supported by ‘zero rating’ plans,” and users “may never move to ‘real’ Internet access, satisfied with their ‘free’ access to a walled garden of chosen services.” Timothy Karr, on HuffPost, writes:

As apps go this might seem well and good, but Zuckerberg sees Internet.org as far more than an app. If things proceed as planned, it will represent the entirety of the Internet for a significant proportion of the world’s population.
And that’s the problem because Internet.org isn’t the Internet. It’s an enclosed digital domain that doesn’t benefit the poor so much as it pads Facebook’s bottom line. Imagine the benefits of a billion new subscribers for a company whose business is built on harvesting user data. …
Zuckerberg doesn’t want to offer poor people the open Internet; he wants to provide access to only the sites that meet Internet.org’s criteria. The Zuckernet is a small universe where you can “like” your favorite pet meme, look up Wikipedia’s definition of “paternalism” and read text-based news briefs from the BBC World Service. Because Internet.org limits rich media usage, it’s not a place where you can upload videos exposing local corruption or police brutality. It’s not a place where you can share photos with distant family members. And if you’re hoping to start your own online business, you’ll first have to maneuver through Facebook’s predatory approval process and privacy policy before you can charge customers.
The real Internet is the better option, of course.

To me, that concern seems vastly overstated. It’s true that many people around the globe think that Facebook is “the Internet” — often, in surveys, responding “Yes” to the question of whether they have accessed Facebook and “No” to the question of whether they have used the Internet, over the past month.

But so what? Millions of people in this country, back in the day, thought that AOL “was the Internet” — just as they thought, before AOL was on the scene, that Prodigy, or CompuServe, was the Internet. But they pretty quickly figured that out and saw that “the real Internet is the better option.” I don’t think it’s too difficult for people to grasp that what they’re getting for free (the “Facebook walled garden app”) is not the same (and probably not as “good”) as the thing they have to pay for (full Internet access). Folks in Malaysia and India will presumably learn about that the same way that AOL and CompuServe users in Michigan or Indiana did: Their kids will come home from school and complain about not being able to reach some site that their friends were all talking about. Facebook claims that 50 percent of app users do indeed sign up with their carriers for Internet access after 30 days, which, if true, seems to rather clearly demonstrate that the “on-ramp” scheme is working pretty well, and nobody will get “trapped” inside the garden walls.

The second concern is the fear, as one of my colleagues put it, that Facebook becomes “a vertically integrated gatekeeper of carriage and content” — that it uses its dominant position to gain widespread acceptance of the walled garden app, and then uses its control over the content of the garden to pick “winners and losers” (sites that are, or are not, included in the free data stream); innovators and developers of new services will then have to satisfy Facebook’s criteria, whatever they may be, if they want to get access to these hundreds of millions of new customers — just the sort of “approval from on high” that nobody has to get (and that Facebook itself didn’t have to get when it launched its service) in order to launch some new application on the open Web.

This, in turn, has led to calls to require Facebook, if it wants to continue to distribute the Internet.org app, to remove itself from the loop in deciding what content gets “zero rated,” substituting some more “objective” criteria to determine inclusion (or giving the decision about what content to include to some neutral third party out of Facebook’s control).

I’m not convinced about this, either. I don’t think FB can offer the service in the first place without control over the included content. There is, after all, a cost to data transmission, which is why the ISPs charge for it; FB is getting the ISPs to waive that fee, but I assume that is accompanied by all sorts of guarantees about the amount of traffic that will be generated, and by promises by FB to the ISPs that FB will keep control so that the ISPs’ costs don’t become excessive. If it has to open up the garden under the direction of some third party, it can’t make those guarantees or promises anymore, and the whole project, I would think, would have to be abandoned. Which is too bad for those people who would actually benefit from the free (though limited) access to useful Internet sites being provided.

Though this looks like an argument about “net neutrality,” I think that the connection to the net neutrality debates is more semantic than real. Lots of apps give users access to a limited amount of information — my iBird Pro app, for instance, which has information on bird songs, identification and distribution. The developers have to “discriminate” about what information they provide — but it’s not a violation of “net neutrality” because it’s not an Internet app, and it has no effect whatsoever on my ability to jump out of the app and find any information on the Net that I wish to find. It seems to me that the same is true for the internet.org app — it’s offering users a chunk of (hopefully useful) information, and if they’re not satisfied with the information they’re getting, they can always “graduate” to the full Internet. Yes, it will cost them money to do that — but that’s because there’s a cost to providing that full Internet access. Unless someone subsidizes that cost, consumers will have to pay it — and depriving them of the app seems like an odd way to solve that problem.

[UPDATE:  As often is the case in these matters, I find myself in agreement with Larry Downes over on forbes.com, who is similarly dubious about the critics’ claims]