Facebook gives Internet.org a makeover

Effort to boost worldwide connectivity gets encryption and a new name

Facebook is giving its worldwide Internet connection project, Internet.org, a makeover that includes more security and granular control, along with a new name.

On Thursday, Internet.org's name became Free Basics by Facebook. The name change is consistent across the app and the mobile website.

"We're making this change to better distinguish the Internet.org initiative from the programs and services we're providing, including Free Basics," the company said in a blog post. "Anyone currently using the app will be able to continue using the Android app, though it will now be called Free Basics by Facebook in Google Play."

A little more than two years ago, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he was starting a global initiative to bring Internet connectivity to the two-thirds of the world's population, or about 5 billion people, that doesn't have access.

Facebook said today more than 1 billion people across Asia, Africa and Latin America have online access through Facebook's Internet.org effort.

In May, Facebook announced the Internet.org platform that was designed to make it easier for developers to adapt their services for the effort's requirements.

"Today, more than 60 new services are available across the 19 countries where free basic services are available," the company wrote. "Not only does this expand the range of resources available to people, it gives them more choice and control over the services they can use in the app and web site."

The effort has not been without controversy as some digital rights groups have complained that the Internet.org platform provides only limited access to the Internet and violates the principles of net neutrality.

With Internet.org, or now Free Basics, at work, SmartBusiness, a website that helps people launch and run a business, now has five times more daily searches from South Africa, while healthcare-focused websites BabyCenter and MAMA have reached 3.4 million people through Internet.org's free basics services alone, Facebook said.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said Facebook seems to be making headway with its connectivity work.

"According to Facebook, Internet.org is making progress," he added. "We haven't necessarily heard a lot from the operators, though, who are benefiting from Facebook's investment. Overall, Internet.org is striving to do the right thing, which is to accelerate the adoption of the mobile web to people who don't today have access."

This week, the company also said that it's working to increased users' online security by adding more encryption through Free Basics.

"Several months ago we announced support for services using HTTPS in the Free Basics Android app, and today, we're adding support for HTTPS services on the web version as well," Facebook wrote. "And even if the service you access only runs over HTTP, we encrypt that information between our servers and any device that supports HTTPS."

"Adding encryption is a good thing," Moorhead said. "Encryption makes the transmission of personal content more secure. No security system is infallible, but adding encryption is a big deal, something we may take for granted in the U.S."

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