Opinion: Zuckerberg’s internet.org – global game-changer or cynical landgrab? Both, actually, but don’t ever call it altruism


I was greeted this morning (as no doubt many of you were) by Mark Zuckerberg’s face plastered all over my news feed. The Facebook founder and CEO has tapped into a normally turgid time for tech news with an announcement that he plans to sprinkle the developing world with connectivity like some big, gurning internet fairy.


The plan: he and some well-chosen chums – Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung – have taken it upon themselves to save the world from the blight of not being able to share cat GIFs.

In a mission statement/blog piece entitled “Is Connectivity a Human Right?” Zuckerberg bemoans that “only 2.7 billion people — a little more than one third of the world’s population — have internet access”, adding that providing the other five billion with internet access is “one of the greatest challenges of our generation”.

Now it would probably be churlish and old-fashioned of me to mention that one in eight people in the world is suffering from chronic undernourishment. Or that more than a billion people don’t have clean drinking water. Or that millions of women don’t have access to birth control. Or that 95 per cent of HIV infections are in developing countries. That food, water and not being shot in the face are probably more pressing human rights.

Zuck has headed off these criticisms by pointing at the need for a “knowledge economy” and showing us a couple of graphs from McKinsey. Of course, increasing people who are connected, who can pool information and mobilise themselves through knowledge is A Very Good Thing. But are we to believe that it’s sheer altruism that’s driving Facebook and six major tech giants to set their sights on the developing world?

Giving the developing world “what people intuitively want”

Zuck has admitted that plans are rough at the moment, but outlined that the project has a three-pronged approach – bring down the underlying costs of delivering data, optimise “basic internet services” to consume less data and provide a more robust wireless infrastructure for delivery.

[contentad keyword= “left”] Let’s take data first: “Many people who have never experienced the internet don’t know what a data plan is or why they’d want one. However, most people have heard of services like Facebook and messaging and they want access to them… Connecting with the people around you through a social network is a basic human behavior. It’s not a surprise that people intuitively want this,” says the Facebook boss.

And it looks like he and his new consortium get first dibs in defining which internet products should be optimised and delivered free of a data plan entirely, as “basic internet services”

“We’re not prescribing any specific set of basic internet services,” says Zuck, going on to define such services as ones that “need to be tools that people use to discover other content”, and that “should have the property that by making data for them free, people will discover more new content and use meaningfully more data than they would have if they didn’t have access to these basic services” ie providing free services that encourage more consumption. “Services like messaging, social networks, search engines and Wikipedia fit this definition well.” Ah, social networks, such as Facebook perchance?

And what of infrastructure? Zuck has pinned his colours to reallocate TV broadcasting spectrum for internet access. Obtaining wireless spectrum rights can be a complex and thorny procedure, but by aligning with this consortium of telco giants, Zuck has created an almost unstoppably powerful lobby group with limitless resources, or as he puts it: “This is a good example of the industry working together with governments to make these networks more efficient.”

An unabashed business decision

Facebook is facing market saturation in the US and the developed world. The largest opportunities for user acquisition are now Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Java-based Facebook for Every Phone now has 100 million users per month and growing since its launch in 2011. And there’s a potential market of five billion up for grabs.

Zuckerberg admits this in his “Incentive Alignment” closing to his post, stating the bald benefits for operators, manufacturers and, of course, service providers such as Facebook:

This is good for people because they’ll have an affordable way and a reason to connect to the internet and join the global knowledge economy.

This is good for mobile operators because they’ll have more customers who want to buy more data, which will increase their profits and help them invest in building out the networks.

This is good for phone manufacturers and technology providers because more people will want better devices, which will push the industry forward.

This is good for internet services because the efficiencies we’ll all drive will make it easier and cheaper for the next five billion people to access their services.

This is good for the world because everyone will benefit from the increased knowledge, experience and progress we make from having everyone connected to the internet.

This latest announcement is an unabashed business decision. Pure and simple and incredibly audacious. With far-reaching and probably very great global consequences. And you’d expect nothing else from the man who has helped to transform the communication and behaviour of the modern world.

But creating a narrative of Zuck and co riding in on white chargers under the banner of altruism is simply vile. Where is any mention of local consultation, where’s the pledge to work with existing operators or build infrastructure though local partnerships?

The Gates Foundation uses its $36bn fund to plug away at tough global issues surrounding healthcare and poverty. Zuck setting himself up as the brave new creator of a globally connected utopia while he and his telco friends tap into a vastly lucrative market? It’s like asking us to believe that the NSA were simply curious, Starbucks is on a mission to provide the world with great coffee or that Simon Cowell unleashed One Direction on us for the love of music.

Image credit: flickr user lordjim