Facebook along with six other telecom and tech companies has unveiled a grand plan to bring Internet connectivity to the 4 billion humans who don't yet have access, a move that "tries to pair humanitarian goals with the profit motive," as The New York Times's Vindu Goel explains it. You can read all about the plan here, and watch a video, complete with JFK speech voiceover, about it at Internet.org, the effort's online home. The idea sounds incredible. But that's about as far as this dream goes. Much like Elon Musk's Hyperloop, the devil is in the details. I's not exactly clear how Zuckerberg and co. have a plan to get the Internet to the untethered masses or if it's the best way to do so.
But set that aside for a second: what is the humanitarian goal these for-profit organizations are trying to attain? In a paper called "Is Connectivity a Human Right?" we get a "rough outline" of how the group plans on getting Internet everywhere:
- Making internet access affordable by making it more efficient to deliver data.
- Using less data by improving the efficiency of the apps and experiences we use.
- Helping businesses drive internet access by developing a new model to get people online
The report then elaborates on the making the Internet more efficient part, which is the important part it ensures the following: "If the industry can collectively make progress here, then it is possible for operators to build even more proﬁtable models while offering data at significantly lower costs per megabyte." (Emphasis ours.) All of the technical improvements — like stronger signals, cheaper caching, and getting the government to allocate spectrum "more efficiently" — have to not just maintain, but increase profit margins for those involved. What doesn't get much discussion is what benefit the 4 billion people Facebook hopes to connect will get from all this. Even that is cast in business benefit. "Giving everyone the opportunity to connect is the foundation for enabling the knowledge economy."
It's not impossible that a world in which profit margin disguised as humanitarian efforts could make the world a better place. That's the entire Silicon Valley philosophy. "Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action," one start-up kid told The New Yorker's George Packer. And some technologies do improve the world. But, it's worth remembering: "Like industries that preceded it, Silicon Valley is not a philosophy, a revolution, or a cause. It’s a group of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals with their own well-guarded interests," writes Packer.
Facebook wants more Internet customers because it has exhausted the connected world and it needs to grow. That's the motivation for its Facebook for Every Phone plan that puts the social network on non-smartphones, which also fits into the using less data point in the "rough plan" as it makes apps more efficient, and therefore cheaper and more accessible.) Getting Internet to everyone is part of this same vision, albeit a little desperate since those customers are far less lucrative.
The motivations are clear here — they don't have to precipitate negative consequences, but they can. Take Henry Ford's charge to pave America's roads. Like Facebook's grand plan, that also happened to make a part of the world more "open and connected" while also aligning quite nicely with Ford's profits. More roads meant more cars. Then again, that halted the mass-transit movement in this country.
If we look at this Internet for All plan through this admittedly skeptical lens, it's not so hard to see how this could turn from great humanitarian effort into something more self-interested. What does it really mean to have Facebook control the world's Internet connections? If this were truly devoid of self-interest, then why is Google notably missing from the roster of Internet.org's partners. It has its own efforts to get Internet to developing countries, like its wireless broadband balloons. These companies see a benefit to owning the yet-to-be-developed airwaves. If they didn't and just wanted uplift the poor, they might invest in other things, as Bill Gates recently argued. "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," he told Bloomberg Businessweek.