Last week, billionaire Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced a new initiative, Internet.org, aimed at greatly expanding Internet access throughout the developing world — a goal that he said would spark dramatic economic growth in the world’s poorest countries. But is Zuckerberg’s claim really true? And is Internet.org really the humanitarian effort that Zuckerberg painted it to be?
None other than Nobel Peace Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, has endorsed the project. “Extending Internet access, in an almost costless way, to the next 5 billion people is key for solving all social problems,” he said in a statement issued by Facebook. “Using the combined power of technology and social business will enable any individual anywhere in the planet to change the world in the fastest possible time. Internet.org will help transform a small piece of solution of a giant problem, in one unknown location, into a global solution.”
But the majority of reactions have been far less kind. The criticism of Internet.org breaks down into three basic points.
1) “Internet for All” really means “Facebook for All.”
That’s the message of David Sasaki, a Latin American open web advocate. But Sasaki is hardly alone in essentially calling Internet.org a thinly disguised Facebook marketing scheme. Writing in The Atlantic Wire, for example, Rebecca Greenfield makes plain what she says are Zuck’s true motivations: “Facebook wants more Internet customers because it has exhausted the connected world and it needs to grow.” Indeed, having already signed-up some 1.15 billion users, Facebook’s growth is now slowing — and many believe that the vast majority of the approximately 2.7 billion people worldwide with Internet connections who want to sign up for Facebook have already done so.
As Greenfield points out — and as Zuckerberg himself touches on in his essay — Facebook is already heading down this path with its “Facebook for Every Phone” web app, which delivers Facebook content on the less advanced “feature phones” common throughout the developing world.
Zuckerberg himself acknowledged Facebook stands to “benefit from” improving global access to the Internet, though he rejected as “crazy” criticism of that reality. “The billion people who are already on Facebook have way, way more money than the next 6 billion people combined,” said Zuckerberg in a Monday interview with Wired. “If we wanted to focus on just making money, the right strategy for us would be to focus solely on the developed countries and the people already on Facebook, increasing their engagement rather than having these other folks join.”
2) The Internet does not cause economic growth.
Pointing to graphs drawn from a McKinsey study that purportedly show the Internet is increasingly contributing to GDP growth in developing countries, Zuckerberg presented a vision of a world in which low-cost Internet access, innovative business models, and highly efficient apps for mobile devices would grow the economic pie in developed and developing markets alike.
If he’s right, Zuckerberg’s motivations would arguably be besides the point — and could even be seen as an example of capitalism at its best, lifting all boats through the power of self-interested economic behavior. It is possible, after all, that Facebook’s interests just happen to align with those of the developing world.
But the growth-boosting power of the Internet appears less clear-cut than Zuck suggests. Jen Schradie, a sociology doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley who researches digital democracy, posted a widely linked open letter to Zuckerberg criticizing him for overstating the relationship:
Where you get stuck, really stuck, is in your neat bar charts from McKinsey in which you talk about how technology is associated with GDP growth in developed countries. Write this down: correlation is not causation. It’s a neat phrase to throw around at cocktail parties. But for our purposes, the Internet in and of itself will not solve the structural problems in the developing world. Think about it this way – the economic advantages that the developed world has, often on the back of the developing world, could be fostering Internet growth, rather than the other way around.
Even the McKinsey report itself was careful not to overstate the cause-and-effect: “Of course, these are just correlations. Causality still needs to be fully proved and we welcome additional work in this field.”
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Research into this very question has further called Zuckerberg’s economic claim into doubt. In a June Bloomberg Businessweek article, for example, Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who studies the link between technology and economics, poked holes in a 1999 Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland study that’s often used to establish a causal link between Internet use and economic growth. The study does indeed demonstrate “a positive relationship between the number of Internet users in a country in 1999 with gross domestic product growth from 1974 to 1992.” But, he adds sarcastically, “Usually we expect the thing being caused (growth in the 1980s) to happen after the things causing it (1999 Internet users).” And in a 2003 paper, Kenny specifically discredited the premise on which Internet.org is based, concluding: “Beyond the scarcity of physical and human capital needed to beneﬁt from the Internet, the institutional environment in [less-developed countries] is not conducive to rapid and successful exploitation of the technology.”
3) Internet access may be important, but it’s not a right.
Zuckerberg has repeatedly asserted Internet access to be a human right — an assertion that, even more than his economic claims, has the power to moot all criticism of Internet.org. But is Web access really an inalienable human right alongside life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
The vast majority of global Internet users and the United Nations Human Rights Council say yes. But the question continues to be hotly debated by both human rights experts and the tech community. Some are concerned that labeling the Internet a human right cheapens other, more basic rights. “There are only 30 articles in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the most widely accepted list of human rights,” wrote Brian Skepys, a Google employee, in a research paper on the topic. “The rights listed are all basic rights that are arguably instrumentally necessary for membership in a political community. On the other hand, there are plenty of things that we are tempted to claim as human rights, such as Internet access, that are not human rights in themselves.”
The legendary computer scientist Vint Cerf, often called “the father of the Internet,” has been careful about calling the Internet and other technologies an enabler of rights, not rights in and of themselves. “Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition,” Cerf wrote last year in the New York Times. “It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that access itself is such a right.”
Suw Charman-Anderson, a journalist and former executive director of the Open Rights Group, agrees with Cerf. “Cerf points out that making the Internet a human right is akin to making a horse a human right in the 19th Century because it was the primary form of travel. However, focusing on the horse rather than the freedom of movement exalts one particular technology, rather than digging to the core of what basic human needs require protection,” she writes.
Meanwhile, none other than Bill Gates recently went on the record questioning the value of a Google initiative to bring the Internet to the developing world using balloons as floating hotspots. “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 Businessweek earlier this month.
None of this is to say that Zuckerberg has an obligation to commit his wealth — let alone Facebook’s resources — to furthering humanitarian causes. (Or that he has entirely failed to do so — to his credit, Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark public school system in 2010 and $500 million in Facebook stock to a Silicon Valley community nonprofit in 2012, moves that don’t have a clear tie to Facebook’s business interests.)
And of course Zuckerberg has a fiduciary duty to his shareholders to push for expanding Internet access simply because it would help Facebook.
But his exaggeration of the economic benefits to developing nations, and his failure to acknowledge how much his company (and personal fortune) would stand to gain, make the grandiose claims of his Internet.org presentation ring pretty hollow.