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Is Facebook's New Connectivity Platform a Product of Benevolence or Greed?

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, August 22 2013

Facebook announced this week the launch of internet.org, an initiative to connect “the next five billion people,” according to a white paper by Mark Zuckerberg. In it he contends that connectivity is a human right, at least basic services like messaging, social networks, and search engines. Some are sure to be skeptical of Zuckerberg's benevolence, since he has already been accused of trying to take over the world wide web. Even more damning, the day following Facebook's announcement, a piece published in The Guardian suggested that Facebook's monopoly in Burma is hindering the progress of media.

A Quartz piece from last September spins the tale of Facebook as an evil Internet overlord, slowly taking over entire markets:

This is the story of Facebook’s rapidly unfolding plan to take over the world, or at least the world wide web. It’s a tale that’s been hiding in plain sight for years, and it begins with an explanation of how Facebook has reached almost a billion users. It continues with a roadmap for how the seeds of Facebook’s future growth – to two billion and beyond – have already been planted. In both cases, what matters is emerging markets in Asia, Africa, and Latin America: the striving, proto-middle class “next billion” whose first impression of the internet is often that it seems to consist entirely of a site called Facebook.

How did Zuckerberg accomplish such a feat? With Facebook Zero, a version of Facebook that works with simple feature phones, and that is completely free, at least until you download data chugging photos or click on a link to an external website.

It seems they might leverage some of the same tactics for internet.org. Although connectivity is a basic right, according to Zuckerberg, streaming video and music or downloading high-resolution photos should cost money.

According to The Guardian, Facebook “aims to tie its social network deeper into the businesses of mobile operators, including zero-rating data traffic – something it's already done with its Facebook Zero scheme.”

The ubiquitous spread of Facebook could hinder or harm other aspects of the Internet. In Burma, “the Internet and Facebook have essentially merged in the eyes of many Burmese,” according to Jeanne Bourgault, president and CEO of the nonprofit Internews. Internews provides support to local media outlets worldwide.

Bourgault writes:

There's much to be said for the unquestionably positive role Facebook has played in facilitating open conversations in Burma's rapid transition. But the nation's media, and its people, need more.

As an interactive communications tool, Facebook facilitates engagement. But newspapers and officials quickly lose control of streams of comments as they move to individual pages, which means there is little curating or control of the comment line, resulting in a rapid spread of comments that can easily trend to the negative, and even be considered hate speech.

As a closed service, Facebook does not allow media outlets to be as creative with their online presence, nor is it generating much needed digital entrepreneurism and monetisation [sic] that thrives on more open internet platforms.

Either way, good or bad, Facebook is not the only company striving to connect the unconnected. Earlier this year Google announced its whimsical and flighty initiative to connect the developing world by balloons.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.