Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the world’s largest repository of sanctimonious Upworthy links and photos of your balding ex-boyfriend, announced this week that he wants to bring the Internet to the four billion people who do not currently have it.
Along with fellow communications titans Qualcomm, Samsung, Nokia and Ericsson, the Facebook chief has founded the imaginatively titled non-profit Internet.org. The collaboration intends to slash the cost of basic Internet services on cellphones, with a focus on people in developing countries and anyone else who hasn’t yet seen that YouTube of a monkey falling off a tree after smelling its own butt or received invitations to LinkedIn.
In other words, living in abject poverty has never been so exciting – things are about to go digital! Pretty soon, you’ll be able to tweet about the parasites in your drinking water and post cool Instagram pics of the roving band of drugged-up child soldiers that razed your village.
One of the major steps in making this a reality is paring down phone applications so that they run more efficiently, as well as focusing on the phones’ physical components, which will be upgraded to send higher volumes of data at fractional amounts of battery drainage. As soon as they figure this out, the developing world can kiss its troubles goodbye. And, I’ve got to say, I’d kill to get my hands on one of these suckers – my phone’s battery is a total nightmare!
While no one is contesting the benefit of bringing cheap connectivity and communication methods to underrepresented parts of the world, some have noted the limitations of this type of humanitarian project. Bill Gates, for example, took issue with a similar project Google announced at the beginning of the month, Project Loon – an aerial wireless system that consists of Internet balloons that float 20 kilometres above the ground. Signals travel through the network of balloons to a ground-based station, then to an ISP, and are intended to help connect those who live in rural and remote areas.
Mr. Gates, whose non-profit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fights malaria in developing countries, said of the project: “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.”
As loath as I am to disagree with Bill Gates, I wonder if it is wrong-headed to approach progress like a railway, coming from one track only. Progress is conveniently Web-shaped. Society doesn’t have to choose between saving the whales and helping the homeless. There is bandwidth for both. So why should the developing world have to wait for access to information, free debate and discussion until there are enough freshwater wells?
But Facebook getting into this game is a bit like the chief executive officer of Lexus tackling Afghanistan’s road infrastructure problem. In July, Facebook reported $1.6-billion (U.S.) in advertising revenue. And while Mr. Zuckerberg says his aim is philanthropic rather than for profit, he does admit that – down the line – an uptick in revenue would be possible. As will the increased likelihood of a yak herder in Bhutan losing his animals because he just can’t stop Googling himself.
Let’s also remember that Mr. Zuckerberg was the one who, three years ago, famously said, “The age of privacy is over.” As a fairly boring Canadian citizen, I don’t give much thought to how and when Facebook is spying on me, and where that information is going. If any of my online information went to the government (which is predominantly e-mails to mum), I can’t imagine Prime Minister Stephen Harper could do much more with it than unleash an annoying Mother’s Day-themed robo-call in my direction. These are low stakes. But in countries where there is a militia or martial law, or, as in Uganda, legislative proposals include one that is colloquially known as the “Kill the Gays bill,” online privacy matters.
Companies that started with a bunch of college kids in basements have to learn to adapt to the responsibility of their proven ability to change history. We can only hope that the man who, in his early days, invented a program that compared the attractiveness of college co-eds is careful with his power.