Facebook stole the headlines this morning with the announcement of its new master plan to connect the more than five billion people living in the world who’re stil unable to access, or only have limited access, to the internet. The drive, which was announced by Mark Zuckerberg in a blog post and the New York Times in a separate exclusive, will go by the simple banner of Internet.org.
Facebook won’t be going it alone – it’s being backed by six other high profile tech businesses in the form of Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung. The initiative will see the companies launch joint projects, share their knowledge and work together to mobilize governments and industry in an effort to bring the unconnected two-thirds of the world’s population online in the fastest time possible. Much of the effort will focus on connecting people vis smartphones, with one of the key goals of Internet.org being to reduce the cost of data plans, allowing less affluent people around the world get online so they can access sites like, well, Facebook.
On the face of it, it seems like Zuckerberg is chasing a worthy cause, and he rightly points out that it won’t be an easy one. Nevertheless, these are challenges that need to be overcome, with the Facebook boss insisting that access to the internet these days is a basic “human right.”
The other partners have been just as enthusiastic, glossing over their mission with statements like this one from Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg:
“We are committed to shaping the Networked Society – where everyone and everything will be connected in real time; creating the freedom, empowerment and opportunity to transform society. We believe affordable connectivity and internet access improves people’s lives and helps build a more sustainable planet.”
There may be some truth in what Zuckerberg and Vestberg are saying, but don’t for a minute think that these two are just being charitable. These statements are simply glossing over the real motivation for Facebook and its partners – and that’s to make more money, lots of it, by bringing internet access to the rest of the planet and consequently, signing everyone up as ‘customers’.
Not that what Facebook and friends are doing is completely evil. Zuckerberg spoke of making the world “more open and connected” for long enough that his words probably are sincere, he does believe that the mission can help to better progress and bring prosperity to less developed parts of the world. But even so, he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing if he didn’t think it was also going to be profitable.
Fact is, companies like Facebook (and Google with its crazy Wi-Fi balloons) have little choice but to try and expand the internet if they want to grow any further. These brands are so well known in the west that they’ve stopped expanding long ago, and so it makes sense they’re turning their attention to less well-off parts of the world.
Ironically, though Facebook’s motivations for Internet.org are slightly less-than-honest, it’s also true that this is the only way the under-developed world is ever going to get connected. Its the profits of companies like Facebook and Google that’ll make this mission possible – no one else is fronting the money to do it, even if it ultimately means that those who get online will end up paying for it out of their own pockets.