Why Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org initiative is misguided and self serving

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, along with other tech companies, announced an initiative to provide more internet access to poor countries around the world, but it does more for Facebook than it does for developing nations.

Today, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the launch of internet.org, a global partnership with six other tech firms, that aims to make internet accessible to more people all over the world, i.e developing countries. On the face of it, it seems like a noble endeavor, (who doesn’t want more internet?) But ultimately, the initiative does a lot more for Facebook (and the tech companies partnering with it) than it does for developing nations.

Other companies partnering with Facebook include Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung. The heavy mobile manufacturer presence is in line with the stated goal of bringing more smartphones into the hands of less connected people.

“Everything Facebook has done has been about giving all people around the world the power to connect,” Zuckerberg said in a press release. “There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy. Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it.”

Zuckerberg is definitely right about there being barriers in developing countries to getting online, but it has less to do with it being affordable and more to do with poor infrastructure. The reality is it’s actually cheaper to get online in a lot of developing countries than it is in the US, but setting up connection points is difficult due to government interference, red tape and geographical conflict. Those are barriers internet.org isn’t really ready to address.

Speaking to the New York Times, Zuckerberg dismissed claims that the initiative was self serving.  “We’re focused on it more because we think it’s something good for the world,” he said, “rather than something that is going to be really amazing for our profits.” 

If Facebook really wanted to solve third-world problems, there are many places it could have started. Find a way to provide and transport clean water. Educate more children about computers and writing code. Provide grants to small businesses and startups to innovate. The possibilities are endless. All these initiatives can be done independent of internet access. One has to ask how bringing more internet to people who can barely afford to eat three meals a day or access drinking water will really improve their lives. At times, it almost seems like something straight out of the popular internet meme #FirstWorldProblems.

Google, (who is conspicuously missing from this initiative) recently publicized its own efforts to provide more internet access to developing countries with Project Loon in which floating balloons will provide wireless internet access. And Bill Gates rightfully took them to task for it, speaking to Bloomberg Businessweek, he said, 

When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that. Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-health-care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria.

Make no mistake, while its good to get more internet to areas where people can really useit, by introducing it areas where it’s way down on the priority list is useless and even damaging. Why introduce yet another thing for people in poor countries to spend money on when clearly they could use it for other things?

Again, speaking to the New York Times, Zuckerberg acknowledged the cost problem but said “if you can afford a phone, I think it would be really good for you to have access to the internet.”

That kind of statement seems pretty obtuse when you think about the millions of things people in third world countries would do if they could afford a phone. Getting on the internet is pretty low down that list. 

Why can’t Silicon Valley with all of its wealth and innovation, come up with simpler, more effective way to help people who have needs other than accessing the internet? Because that would be pure charity, and unfortunately this project is not that. Make no mistake, the ultimate goal is to get more people using the internet, using smartphones and using Facebook.  The US is tapped out, and teens are dropping off Facebook, so a fresh, much larger user base is needed, and developing countries have got massive populations. Zuckerberg might say the increase in profits would be marginal. But the increase in users would be exponential, which at this point, is all Wall Street needs to see to keep that stock price rising.

Bottom line, no doubt there will be some benefits that come out of this initiative. But whether they go to people in poor countries or tech companies remains to be seen.

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