With Internet.org, Facebook could rule the future internet

5 May 2015

Pictured: Mark Zuckerberg at Mobile World Congress this year

Already, some have dismissed it as the Facebooknet, but if you think about what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is trying to accomplish, he could wipe the sniggers off the faces of his many critics.

Already some have dismissed it as the Facebooknet, but if you think about what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is trying to accomplish, he could wipe the sniggers off the faces of his many critics.

With Internet.org, Facebook intends to provide internet access to 4bn people who live in impoverished parts of the world.

These are the very people that the Apple Watch is currently not intended for.

They currently don’t have the buying power for the US$600-plus smartphones sold by Samsung, HTC or Apple.

But if you think about the trajectory of world economic history, they actually should be the very people Tim Cook, JK Shin and Cher Wang should be thinking about … thinking about a lot.

In fairness to Zuckerberg, he has been pushing to make the social network palpatable on feature phones since 2009. Microsoft gets this and through its Lumia brand has been creating smartphone devices that can be today acquired for as little as €35.

Thanks to the efforts of luminaries like Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia, for the first time in the history of the world every person can conceivably access an encyclopaedia for free.

With Internet.org Zuckerberg wants to partner with mobile operators to provide free access to the internet – well specific parts of it, including Facebook Messenger, Wikipedia, UNICEF’s Facts of Life health site and local news websites – through a mobile app in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

The first trial service began in the African state of Zambia last July, followed by Tanzania and Kenya. It is now looking at India, which has a population of more than 1bn people.

Knowledge is empowering

At Mobile World Congress in March, Zuckerberg said that connecting the next half of the world’s population will be different from the current situation. “It has to be an evolution but I am confident that over time it will happen.

“The technology we have today is not efficient enough to cost effectively serve everyone, especially in rural areas. Just because we are working with planes and satellites doesn’t mean we will solve it. We need the operators and Ericsson, for example, is a part of Internet.org.

“People talk about that stuff [planes, drones and balloons] because it is sexy, but the bigger deal is there is a lot of folks who haven’t grown up with the internet. We are working with operators to craft specific programmes that help people get the tools they need to get online.

“We have to customise it in a way that is specific to countries and their need: in Africa, it is health.”

Those critical of Internet.org point out that it runs counter in some ways to the principle of net neutrality – that all sites should be treated equally. In defence of this, Zuckerberg pointed out in an op-ed in India’s Hindustan Times that Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle other services and nor does it create fast lanes.

“We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes,” Zuckerberg promised.

The interesting thing about all of this is that if Internet.org can strike a meaningful balance between the internet haves and have-nots of this world, then in time that will be remembered as a formidable achievement.

Because of the internet, and mobile devices in particular, people have never been more connected and the ability to further an education and gain knowledge today, for example, is unprecedented.

If you look back to the history of the 20th century, the city states of Hong Kong and Singapore struggled with poverty for decades following World War II, far from the current glittering towers of wealth that define them today.

Who is to say that in the years to come other countries – perhaps enabled by free internet access – might not also find their way economically because of these fundamental steps being taken by Zuckerberg and others.

Four billion people – a considerable portion of whom are educated and want the same living standards as those in the developed world – are going to be quite an economic force to unlock.

And they may just thank Zuckerberg and Wales for doing so.

Zuckerberg image via Shutterstock via Shutterstock


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years