Ignore the galling PR, there's more to internet.org than a new audience for Facebook

Yes, Silicon Valley pioneers are pompous types. But this could make a real difference

Share
Related Topics

My first response on hearing about Mark Zuckerberg’s plans to provide internet access to ‘the next 5 billion’ was straightforward and cynical. Despite flying under the flags of philanthropy and humanitarianism the scheme - named internet.org - seems ridiculously transparent: Facebook makes its money by selling a captive audience to advertisers and as Facebook-adoption in developed countries nears saturation point, who can Zuckerberg turn to apart from those poor souls without an active connection?

Of course, the universally happy and enlightened individuals who can get online (these attributes go hand in hand remember) were quick to ask where exactly in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ‘internet access’ slots in. If you don’t have clean water or decent sanitation, what help will a Facebook profile be?  In a recent interview with Businessweek, Bill Gates puts the problem facing this sort of techno-philanthropy more succinctly: “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”

Ironically for Zuckerberg, it’s his slick and over-managed PR that makes you immediately distrust him. These projects are so keen to present themselves as forces for good that the only message they really convey is ‘we have an extremely limited grasp on reality’. The video accompanying the launch of internet.org is a perfect example. An obnoxiously inoffensive piano tune plays over a carefully curated selection of humanity looking all National Geographic whilst some crackly voice extolls the virtues of “increased understanding” and “our common interests”.

The fact that this voice is none other than JFK, addressing a 1963 audience on the importance of trust after the Cuban Missile Crisis just reinforces our idea of how grandiose and self-important these Silicon Valley billionaires are. Kennedy made his speech after the world had collectively stepped back from the brink of total  annihilation: you’re trying to sell a social network to kids without toilets.

Except, they’re not. Despite all the self-serving profiteering of the project (and that part is inescapable; this will, in the long term at least, be good for Facebook’s bottom line) there’s more substance and value to internet.org than a one minute video designed to give you the warm’n’fuzzies would have you believe.

We’re only thinking about the project in the context of Facebook – ie social-networking as a low-grade social irritant that’s useful but also a bit of a pain – and we forget the principles of communication and connectivity that underpin the whole thing. Zuckerberg’s plan isn’t just to ‘get everyone on Facebook’ but to drastically reduce the cost of transferring data over networks (the target is just one per cent of current costs over the next 5 to 10 years) and provide free access to basic internet services such as email and Wikipedia.

Sure, this is all still pure frippery compared to the good that could be done by curing malaria or clearing landmines, but it’s a project that will help communities self-organise it’s also achievable. Facebook’s engineers have a proven track record in reducing costs of data transfer and a partnership with the likes of Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung can only increase their expertise. Combine these skills with the motivation of (eventual) profit and internet.org seems likely to succeed. Zuckerberg’s self-aggrandizing piety may be objectionable, but you can’t say that he doesn’t know how get people on board (1.11 billion of us as of May this year). Using his skills and his influence to help others? Yeah, I can ‘like’ that.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little