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

Share
Related Topics

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 Internet.org, 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 Internet.org 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 Internet.org 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.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Should parents be allowed to take pictures at nativity plays?  

Ghosts of Christmas past: What effect could posting pictures of nativity plays have on the next generation?

Ellen E Jones
The first Christmas card: in 1843 the inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to draw a card for him to send to family and friends  

Hold your temperance: New life for the first Christmas card

Simmy Richman
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick