Is Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org Plan For The Developing World Innovative, Or Just Ignorant?

 
 
 

After 2010’s The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg realized he had some serious public relations ground to make up if he wanted to continue Facebook’s charge towards cultural hegemony. Zuckerberg has since been crawling his way back into the public’s good will, inch by inch, from donating $100 million dollars to Newark Public Schools on an episode of “Oprah” to wading publicly into the immigration debate through his FWD.us lobbying group. Sure, he’s been held back with what seem like lawsuits from everyone he’s ever partnered with, endless unresolved privacy issues, and a stone-cold public persona that makes Mitt Romney look like Santa Claus, but everyone seems willing to let it slide with the man that changed social life as we know it.

But now Zuckerberg has a new venture, Internet.org, launched with support from numerous other tech giants, to expand internet access to the last two-thirds of the world’s population . You might know this two-thirds as the developing world. More than half of this two-thirds currently lives on less than two dollars a day and almost a quarter of this two-thirds is illiterate. Yet Facebook released a report entitled “Is Connectivity a Human Right?” that never actually answers its own question (presumably assuming the answer is as glaringly obvious to everyone else as it is to Mr. Zuckerberg), but rather goes on to describe how it plans to connect the world’s next 5 billion Internet users.

In an interview with CNN,  Zuckerberg tried to dodge the idea that Facebook was only interested in expanding connectivity for its own profits, claiming “if we were just interested in making money, the first billion people we connected [on Facebook] have way more money than the rest of the next six billion combined.”

But we know this isn’t really true. Facebook’s success depends on its ability to expand into new markets, as the law of diminishing marginal returns begins to take hold in its established economies. Facebook will need to seek out new wealth, even in places where that wealth does not yet exist. This is the idea behind Facebook’s “Facebook for Every Phone,” which brings a simplified version of the site to cheap “feature phones” common in the developing world. Facebook bragged recently that the service reached its first 100 million users, failing to mention a deal with Nokia for the site to be freely accessible on the new Asha 501 affordable smartphone — a device marketed across the developing world.

This brings us to the question of whether internet connectivity, the ability to be marketed to by any number of seemingly benevolent Silicon Valley-based platforms, is actually a human right. I’m sympathetic to the idea that free information access could be included in a newly expanded human rights repertoire down the road. But if that’s the case, then there must be some hierarchy of human rights, beginning with basic freedoms from violence, abuse, a right to food, water, sanitation, and so on.

Once we start providing children with proper vaccinations, adequate nutrition, basic education, stable shelter and running water, I’d be more than happy to set up their Facebook accounts myself. Do these kids have preferred email addresses by any chance?

Mark Zuckerberg may very well be sincere in his desire to benefit humanity, but these most recent ventures reek of the tone-deaf Silicon Valley detachment that gets the industry in trouble so frequently. Plus, he’s a man worth around $16 billion, which if I’m not mistaken is a little less than 60 percent of the GDP of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country of nearly 70 million people (I mean potential Facebook users). If he’s looking to improve the way people in developing nations connect with each other, how about building some roads there first?