How The Poor Will Feed Facebook

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Internet,org wants to get the developing world online. Peter Judge asks if it is all about winn ing new users for Facebook?

I want to see the world online, but there is a side to the announcement of internet.org that makes me uncomfortable.

Facebook and some other firms have announced a plan to make the Internet accessible to everyone in the developing world. The partners include phone makers Samsung and Nokia.

africa4Five billion are off the Net

It’s a bid to make broadband (and especially mobile access) affordable for the people that don’t have it. And remember, despite what we see in the developed world, that is still the majority. While around two billion have the Internet, there’s another five billion who don’t – yet.

There is no doubt that more Internet access would help them. Access to information, and communication with others, could be the way out of poverty for many.

And internet.org is to be commended for taking a practical point of view. The networks are still being built out, so Internet access in the less-developed parts of the world may require a bit of rethinking of the bloated protocols we use where bandwidth isn’t an issue.

But you have to at least acknowledge that Mark Zuckerberg himself, also gets big rewards from the project.

The initiative may be about getting the poor onto “the Internet”, but the subtext is definitely getting them onto Facebook – a somewhat limited subset of what the Internet can do.

Facebook needs new customers

At the moment, Facebook is approaching saturation in the developed world. It’s got 1.15 billion users, and that’s about half the people who are connected to the Internet. There are people leaving the social site over privacy concerns, and many who will never want to try it – so Zuckerberg has to look elsewhere for more souls to harvest.
Facebook doesn’t just want those people online, it wants them seeing ads and playing Farmville, or whatever the next game is.

There are some parts of the internet.org publicity that just sound weird. Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop says these people want “great experiences”. They probably do, but the target audience also contains a lot of people who want basic survival first.

Where does internet.org place net access, relative to healthcare, clean water, or working toilets? Or are they just aiming for a subset of the planet, that already has enough to live on, and maybe has a bit of spare attention that Facebook can exploit.

That’s OK – and I’m sure those people would welcome more connection. But remember Facebook’s (and Google’s) business model is to capitalise on our attention by pumping ads at us. Ads, by definition, are for stuff you wouldn’t otherwise have bought. Stuff you probably don’t need. Is that a priority?

Google’s Loon project also addresses the question of how to get the world’s poor into the social media machine. It proposes balloons to carry the signal.
Now, I know that Bill Gates was the man who famously dismissed the Internet, so he’s not a guru. But he is admirably cynical about all this.

“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,” Gates told Bloomberg earlier this month.

A version of this story appeared on Green Data Center News.

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