When Mark Zuckerberg first introduced Internet.org to the world in August of 2013, I don’t think anybody really believed that he was being benevolent.
The ulterior motive was way too obvious — more people online means more profit potential for Facebook.
Just because the motives aren’t pure, doesn’t mean the idea is without merit.
The organization has gotten some bad press. Criticisms are hurled left and right, with people calling Mark a heartless bastard who only cares about corporate profits and Wall Street sentiment, but this is really only one side of the story.
We can examine the creation of Internet.org from two sides — the business case for the initiative, and the social case.
Internet.org is a Facebook-affiliated nonprofit dedicated to bringing Internet connectivity to the 2/3 of the world population that does not already have access.
Outside of Facebook, Internet.org founding partners include Nokia, Samsung and Qualcomm (market leader in making chips for mobile phones).
There is a clear business case to the organization. The market for connectivity has become saturated. Facebook has grown immensely in the past few years and user growth has slowed considerably. There are no more demographics to expand to. No more awareness to drive to the Facebook platform. Basically just about everyone who is going to create an account already has one.
It is not worth the company’s time to attempt to woo the remaining subset of the population that chooses not to use Facebook. For the most part, they are afraid of the NSA, of privacy breaches, or opposed to using the platform because of societal concerns.
Companies like Samsung, Nokia, and Qualcomm face similar challenges. Smartphone unit sales are slowing in developed markets. Growth is mainly being driven from underpenetrated markets like China, India, Brazil or Indonesia. Expanding Internet access into new territories will encourage more people to buy smartphones, and therefore smartphone penetration around the world will increase dramatically (currently, 30% of the world’s mobile phones are smart).
To accomplish this goal, Facebook spent around $15 million dollars to buy engineering company Ascenta, a UK-based high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) drone maker. The company produces unmanned aircraft capable of traveling at 65,000 feet for months at a time — the perfect platform for beaming Internet to remote areas.
The entire concept seems ludicrous. And there are other issues that haven’t been dealt with — connecting poor, rural communities to the Internet does not mean that they would be able to access it without expensive smartphones. In many of these areas, electricity is a luxury that only the rich can enjoy.
There are regulatory issues guarding foreign airspace, as well as channels of communication. Facebook cannot simply ship drones off to the coast of Africa and let them fly free over rural areas.
Putting together the necessary infrastructure to make this vision of global connectivity a reality is going to be extraordinarily expensive.
While the majority of press coverage on drones is focused on combat UAVs and Google/Amazon delivery drones, perhaps the most exciting advances in drones have been in the high-altitude long-endurance HALE arena. These UAVs are designed to fly at 65,000 feet and stay in the air for nearly a month at a time.
Autonomous and low-maintenance, these drones have wide-ranging potential applications ranging from commercial to military interests, and could conceivably serve as a cheaper and more versatile alternative to satellites in the near future.
Facebook plans on employing Ascenta’s HALE drones to transmit Internet access to rural areas on the ground using free-space optical (FSO) communication technology, which uses infrared laser beams to wirelessly transmit data.
The company will also launch low-Earth orbit satellites that also employ FSO technology to cover large, sparsely populated areas where it may not be economical to use HALE drones.
It’s difficult to guess how much this program will cost — it will likely be enormously expensive.
The potential monetary benefit, for Facebook, derives from an increase in traffic or usage as the population begins to take advantage of newly found methods of communication. These people, potentially, could help drive revenue for the company.
Taking a more serious look at these potential benefits should make it fairly obvious that this will not be a profitable venture. The areas that Facebook is targeting are mostly areas facing harsh economic and political circumstances. Ravaged by war, disease and poverty, the most pressing problems for these regions are clean food/water, economic stability, education, political equality, and medical care (among other things). They do not have smartphones, and would not be inclined to invest in such devices at all.
Even if these people were given devices with which to access the Internet, the monetary benefit they present to Facebook is difficult to see. The company makes money through advertising, and ads require not only sheer quantity of users but also a quality user base to drive revenue to advertised products. Selling brand name clothing or soft drinks to rural Africa will likely not yield tremendous benefits, similar to selling Ferraris and Lamborghinis to college students.
One of my favorite movie lines of all time is from the 2006 political thriller V for Vendetta, in which the title character, V, states in a speech to the people of England:
While the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.
Evaluating philanthropic ventures based on what is most needed in a region is a misguided approach. It is true that much of the demographic that Facebook is targeting with Internet.org is in desperate need of many things, and that the company’s investment in HALE drones could easily be used instead to build remote medical clinics and purchase aid packages.
But there is a reason why Nazi Germany burned so many books, and why an entire generation of Chinese during the Cultural Revolution were refused an education in any subject except for praise of the government. There is a reason why Plato, in The Republic, devoted so much of the book to discussing a custom education to align the citizens’ interests with the welfare of society as a whole. And there is a reason why, even to this day, the Chinese government still actively censors Western websites that could present information contradicting the foundations of the Communist Party.
Information is power. This is the truth in fields ranging from politics to corporate finance. The people of North Korea are entirely loyal to their president because they know of nothing else — all malignant thoughts are repressed, and all that is left is single-minded loyalty. But if they learn of freedom, of the virtues of personal liberty and economic empowerment, they would likely grow weary of the existing government and cause serious social unrest.
Internet.org recently rolled out a new app in Zambia, collaborating with local carrier Airtel. The app offers limited access to the Internet, with wider access available for a price.
Among the free resources available are women’s rights resources like MAMA (Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action), WRAPP (Women’s Rights App), and Facts for Life by UNICEF.
As the organization spreads its influence, women will be able to access these free resources and use the information to drive change within their communities. This will likely attract hostility from cultures or regimes that have historically repressed women, but the potential to affect change in this arena makes this a feature that is worth noting.
While the Zambian government has been largely supportive, it is likely that the organization’s growth into other parts of Africa or the Middle East will cause friction, especially with regimes that are unaccustomed to having to deal with information of this nature.
As Internet.org grows, it is likely that its free offerings will increase, and may grow to include more resources on human rights, or educational materials from MOOCs like Coursera or EdX. Spreading these resources to rural areas could spur economic empowerment and, over time, provide the necessary tools for these regions to grow.
Claiming that Internet.org is a thinly veiled for-profit initiative masquerading as a philanthropic organization is a misguided notion, although it’s easy to draw that conclusion based on only superficial knowledge of the program.
There is tremendous potential in providing unlimited access to information to the massive portion of the world’s population that does not already enjoy it. This is potential that cannot be ignored, but rather should be encouraged — it could drive tremendous economic and political change that may uplift entire countries in the long term.
Cover Image: Mark Zuckerberg on stage at Facebook's F8 Conference | Maurizio Pesce