The Internet as a Human Right: Zuckerberg’s Plan to Connect the World

Bobby Miller

Some people in developed countries tend to take privileges for granted. Some don’t think it’s a big deal when they turn on a faucet and get clean water, that they can get many different kinds of food from their local grocery store, or that they can go online to check their email.

Nvate Mark Zuckerberg, Internet, Internet.org, Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, Samsung, humanitarian organization, connecting the world

Credit: Mark Zuckerberg Facebook page

However, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, recently pointed out that “only 2.7 billion people—just over one-third of the world’s population—have access to the Internet.” He invites us to “imagine a world where it connects us all.”

What is Internet.org?

He made this announcement on a website formed in August 2013 called Internet.org. According to the site, it “is a global partnership between technology leaders, nonprofits, local communities and experts who are working together to bring the Internet to the two thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it.” The website’s press release stated that leaders in mobile connectivity such as Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, and Samsung are its founding partners.

Those behind Internet.org believe that the Internet can be made accessible to all through “affordability, efficiency, and [effective] business models.”

“Most people in the world don’t have much disposable income to spend on data access,” Zuckerberg explained on his official Facebook page. “Any plan to make Internet access broadly available will require making significant technology and business model improvements that enable some access to be either very cheap or free for people who can’t otherwise afford it.”

At the same time, though, mobile Internet plans need to be profitable for companies if they are going to jump on board with this plan to connect the world, so it is important to build efficient infrastructures capable of “offering data at significantly lower costs per megabyte.”

The founders of Internet.org believe that expanding Internet access to all the countries of the world could revolutionize people’s lives. Ming-Kai Tsai, the chairman of MediaTek, believes that “global Internet and social media access represent the biggest shift since the Industrial Revolution, and we want to make it all-inclusive.”

By including everyone, the “knowledge economy” of the world will expand and benefit more people. We can learn the wisdom that communities in developing nations have to offer, and the underprivileged can educate themselves through the Internet at a low price.

Zuckerberg went so far as to tell CNN that people in developing nations are going to use the Internet “to decide what kind of government they want, get access to health care for the first time ever, connect with family hundreds of miles away that they haven’t seen in decades.” Since social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter have helped political revolutions in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries, his vision is not farfetched.

How to Connect the World

While the goal of connecting everyone in the world together may sound like a noble goal, is it practical? In an interview with CNN, Zuckerberg acknowledged that his organization has only a “rough plan” right now, but he believes it will evolve over time.

Nvate Mark Zuckerberg, Internet, Internet.org, Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, Samsung, humanitarian organization, connecting the world

Some parts of the world have few people connected to the Internet.
Credit: Ericsson Facebook page

In their first press release, the group states that “potential projects include developing data compression tools, enhancing network capabilities to more efficiently handle data, building systems to cache data efficiently and creating frameworks for apps to reduce data usage.” Basically, they want network connections to do as much as possible while using as few resources as possible.

Zuckerberg points out on his Facebook page that affordability problems usually don’t lie in the hardware, such as a smartphone, but in the plans that must be purchased to transmit data. “In the [United States], for example, an iPhone with a typical two-year data plan costs about $2,000, where about $500 to $600 of that is the phone and [about] $1,500 is the data,” he said. “In turn, the vast majority of the prices people pay for data plans go directly toward covering the tens of billions of dollars spent each year building the global infrastructure to deliver the Internet. Unless this becomes more efficient, the industry cannot sustainably serve everyone.” Decreasing the cost of data transmission and maintaining Internet networks is essential.

Streamlining data transmission and making local wireless access points cost money. Zuckerberg told CNN that he has already invested more than $1 billion in his mission with Internet.org, and he is “hoping to do a lot more.”

Facing the Criticism

Although Internet.org portrays itself as a humanitarian organization with the goal of benefitting people around the world, some are skeptical of its motives and its capacity to achieve its goals. One of the most common criticisms launched against the organization is the idea that Zuckerberg just wants to get more people on Facebook so he can sell their data to advertisers. However, he denies this claim.

“If we really just wanted to focus on making money, the first billion people who are already on Facebook have way more money than the next five or six billion people combined,” Zuckerberg told CNN. “It’s not fair, but it’s the way that it is. And, we just believe that everyone deserves to be connected, and on the Internet, so we’re putting a lot of energy toward this.”

He does acknowledge, though, that this venture could be profitable for businesses. As The New York Times puts it, “With Internet.org, he is laying out a philosophy that tries to pair humanitarian goals with the profit motive.”

Zuckerberg said that “ultimately, this has to make business sense on some time frame that people can get behind.” When profits are possible, businesses simply have more incentive to follow the project. The New York Times also pointed out that “these companies have little choice but to look overseas for growth” since cell phone and social media usage is already incredibly high in most of the developed world.

Since Internet.org’s project can benefit common people and businesses, Zuckerberg believes that it is a win-win situation for everyone.

However, criticism of the project does not end there. Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center believes that Zuckerberg is naïve to claim that Internet connectivity is enough to let people “decide what kind of government they want.” While Americans might view the Internet as a place where they can share opinions and speak freely, this isn’t the case in many nations.

Bomboy pointed out that “a 2012 report from Freedom House showed that among 47 major nations it surveyed, about 28 percent blocked or censored Internet access. It also said 19 of 47 countries, about 40 percent, had laws that restricted online free speech or presented privacy issues.”

On top of that, “in 26 of the 47 countries, bloggers have been arrested for making political comments.” Countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Burma and Pakistan were particularly restrictive with their Internet policies. While some people might be tech-savvy enough to work around government restrictions, most individuals would have no means of freely expressing themselves in the face of legal threats.

And even when Wi-Fi is granted to certain communities, other practical concerns may prevent them from utilizing it. In particular, how are people in remote areas lacking electricity supposed to power their computers and charge their phones? This is not a minor issue considering that 85 percent of Africans do not have access to electricity, as Solar-Aid.org reported. Also, according to SIL International, an organization dedicated to preserving people’s language and traditions, 1 billion adults worldwide are illiterate, and their children probably are too. The Internet would not be particularly useful for them or for communities lacking a written language.

Nvate Mark Zuckerberg, Internet, Internet.org, Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, Samsung, humanitarian organization, connecting the world

Credit: freedigitalphotos.net africa

But perhaps the most common criticism launched against Zuckerberg and Internet.org is the belief that there are much more pressing concerns in the developing world than Internet access. The most-liked comment on Zuckerberg’s Facebook announcement of Internet.org argues that he should use his resources to connect people with food and water, not just the Internet. Bill Gates expressed similar thoughts to Bloomberg Businessweek, stating that “when a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”

According to The New York Times, “Zuckerberg acknowledged that basic health care is essential, but said that ‘if you can afford a phone, I think it would be really good for you to have access to the Internet.’” His priorities might seem out of line, but it’s important to remember that Zuckerberg’s specialty lies in social media and Internet connectivity. He is simply working in the field that he knows best, doing what he can to benefit people with his own skills. While basic health care is essential to the world, other organizations are better equipped with the skills to handle that necessity.

Zuckerberg stands by his assertion that “connecting the world will be one of the most important things we all do in our lifetimes.” The connectivity and education that the Internet provides will indirectly benefit people in a number of ways over time.

Visit the group’s website for interviews with different technology leaders and updates.

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