Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook hunt for five billion new friends: Can we trust Silicon Valley's do-gooders?

Out of America: First Bill Gates's malaria mission, now Mark Zuckerberg's global ambition. Philanthropy from profits seems to be the way forward

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The Independent Online

Few countries are more developed than Finland. Its citizens enjoy universal healthcare, an unrivalled education system and a deep commitment to democracy: in 1906, its people became the first in the world to achieve universal suffrage. A little more than a century later, in October 2009, the Finnish government was the first to enshrine a new fundamental human right: broadband access. Every Finn was promised a 100Mbps connection by 2015.

Last week, Facebook decided the rest of the world ought to follow. In a post entitled "Is connectivity a human right?", the social network's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote, "Facebook [connects] more than 1.15 billion people each month, but as we started thinking about connecting the next five billion, we realised something important: the vast majority of people in the world don't have access to the internet."

According to the World Bank, just 2.5 billion of the planet's seven billion people have a web connection. So Facebook, along with several more major tech firms, has launched, an organisation whose methods remain hazy, but whose aim is to connect the other 4.5 billion. It's not a novel concept. In June, Google unveiled its own blue-sky scheme, Project Loon, a plan to deploy Wi-Fi-transmitting balloons over the world's most remote areas. Last week, the search giant invited volunteers in California to test the strength of the Loon signal.

Such is the suspicion now surrounding Big Tech, however, that has been met with widespread scepticism. Zuckerberg wasn't shy about suggesting "the next five billion" were potential Facebook users, but many claim he's more interested in creating customers for his business than in making life better for the poor. One commentator called the initiative "a canny business move dressed up to sound like charity".

The developing world is a crucial market for companies such as Facebook, which has been pushing its product there for some time without a charitable gloss. Zuckerberg's previous philanthropic activities have also been known to benefit his bottom line: his lobbying for immigration reform is motivated by the tech industry's appetite for foreign talent. But it's also true that the Facebook boss is a magnet for unwarranted distrust. When he pledged $100m to the New Jersey school system in 2010, he was accused of trying to bolster his image ahead of the release of The Social Network, a fictionalised and unflattering film about his rise.

Bill Gates, the ultimate benevolent techie, has expressed doubts about bringing the web to the developing world. Asked about Project Loon by Bloomberg Businessweek, the Microsoft founder said: "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. When a kid gets diarrhoea … there's no website that relieves that."

Gates's philanthropic activities are more banal than balloon-flying: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aims to eradicate polio by 2018. And then maybe malaria or measles. It recently ran a contest to create a new lavatory design to bring affordable sanitation to the poorest corners of the globe. Reinvent the toilet: not very glamorous. But it is likely to have a bigger impact on the lives of the poorest than the ability to update one's Facebook status.

The Finns had adequate sanitation before they even considered the importance of broadband. In the three countries where polio remains endemic – Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan – respectively 33 per cent, 10 per cent and 5.5 per cent of people have access to the internet. Which would they rather first: wipe out the disease or get the web?

And yet, should that really degrade Zuckerberg's ambition? People in developing countries (which is most people) may have other problems but they want Google and Facebook as much as the next person – not to mention the other benefits that the web provides: social, educational, financial. According to Zuckerberg's white paper, the internet accounted for 21 per cent of GDP growth in developed countries in the past five years.

Nobody knows better how to spread the web than its most successful firms. If they generate profits from the project in the long run, then call it cynical. But, as a prickly Zuckerberg pointed out in an interview with CNN: "If we were just focused on making money, the first billion people that we've connected have way more money than the rest of the next six billion combined."

Elsewhere on the scale of Silicon Valley do-goodery, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos recently purchased The Washington Post. Last week, PayPal founder Elon Musk donated to the world his notional design for a solar-powered mass transit system. Both are arguably philanthropic acts, like Zuckerberg's. Doubtless they were also driven by selfish motives, such as ego or profit. But that doesn't mean the rest of us can't welcome them.