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“Instant Articles” is the newest front in Facebook’s war on the open Web

Facebook is working diligently to wall off larger and larger parts of the Internet. Conflict is inevitable

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

I know I’m not a superhero, but I can’t help but feel like my Spider-sense is tingling when it comes to Facebook. I’m getting the sense that the company is heading for some serious trouble.

Part of the problem is Instant Articles, a new feature launched this week that will allow news organizations to publish articles directly through Facebook.

Rather than hosting articles on their own servers, news outlets will instead give custody of their stories to Facebook itself. Doing so, the company says, will speed up loading times, which is vital on mobile phones. Links followed from the service normally can take up to eight seconds to load, Facebook says, which is enough time to cause a potential viewer to move on.

So far, a number of big news organizations including the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC and National Geographic have signed on. News operations get faster access to readers and 70 per cent of any ad revenue Facebook serves up. The social network, for its part, gets valuable content hosted natively, which will help make its service even stickier with users.

A number of observers, including my friend Mathew Ingram over at Fortune, have likened Instant Articles to a deal with the devil.

News organizations may feel like they have to play ball with Facebook because that’s where people are increasingly getting their news anyway, but it’s the social network that’s getting more value out of the whole thing. It’s coming between the news companies and their readers, and those organizations are playing entirely by Facebook’s rules, which can change at any time.

What’s equally concerning is that Instant Articles divides the Internet into news outlets that are on it and those that aren’t. Facebook is going to have to be picky about who it accepts and how articles are displayed, which means not everyone will have an equal shot at showing up in users’ news feeds.

Sound familiar? It should, because it’s very much like what Facebook is doing through its increasingly controversial effort.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how the project, which aims to connect mobile phone users in developing countries for free to a portion of the Internet—including Facebook, of course—was facing mounting opposition. Websites that wish to be part of the program have to similarly fulfill certain criteria and be picked for it.

Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg insists his motives are altruistic, but the reality is he’s funnelling the next billon Internet users directly into Facebook. If were really a work of charity, the company could offer users free access to the entire Internet with no strings attached.

The chorus of opposition to has grown considerably over the past few weeks. As a headline on an op-ed in the Guardian—ironically one of the first Instant Articles partners—spells out, “if the price of giving everyone Internet access is total domination by Facebook, it’s not worth it.”

In both cases, Facebook is trying to split the Internet into companies, news organizations and web services that work with it, and those that don’t. Those who are onside will benefit from its billion-plus-and-growing user base, and those who aren’t will be left in the cold.

Facebook is increasingly behaving like a company intent on taking over the Internet, or at least like one trying to place itself at the very heart of it. My Spidey-sense is telling me the Internet isn’t going to like that very much.