Picture this. You’re at a Gourmerican burger joint chomping a cheeseburger, when an outspoken vegan friend starts preaching that you’re killing the planet. Last week, that same vegan downed a pricey glass of pinot before their flight to a far-flung destination, armed with their strongest mossie repellant and first aid kit. Anything amiss?
After Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a coalition with several other major tech companies to bring the Internet to areas of the globe that remain disconnected, the tech world reacted with a mix of criticism, mockery, doubt and praise.
In the initiative, called Internet.org, Facebook is joined by Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson, Nokia, Opera, and MediaTek. Naturally, these companies' business interests have led many to approach their new collective altruistic effort skeptically.
ValleyWag, the site that Gawker Media recently re-launched to report and comment on issues relating specifically to Silicon Valley, blasted Zuckerberg and Facebook for a "faux humanitarian" effort to mask "a piece of cynical Facebook marketing." Calling it a "long con," Gawker's Sam Biddle doubted whether the plan would accomplish Facebook's business goals if it is successful.
"But if Zuckerberg's efforts mean more of the developing world has access to the internet and the economic benefits that entails, then great Internet.org doesn't plan missionary squads threatening Facebook sign-ups or death by firing squad," Biddle wrote. "Eventually they'll become tired of Facebook and start using Snapchat, just like the rest of us."
Chris O'Brien at the Los Angeles Timeswas just as doubtful, but pointed instead to the priorities Zuckerberg laid out in the Internet.org announcement.
"It's an ambitious idea. But it's likely to fall well short of its goals for the simple reason that it fails to recognize the complexity of reasons that people don't use the Internet," O'Brien wrote.
Citing several studies on Internet usage in under-developed markets, O'Brien says the "build-it-and-they-will-come" approach to the Internet doesn't account for a lack of equipment, money for equipment, and basic computer knowledge among people in these demographics, as a report released this June by the U.S. Department of Commerce had found.
"The problem is that once you turn the lens to these other issues, you've got to tackle some even more fundamental problems that may well feel overwhelming. Class, race, education," O'Brien wrote. "Is it reasonable to think Internet.org should [be] required to take on such weighty problems? Well, if this plan is going to have the intended impact, it can't afford to ignore these social and economic issues."
Engadget's Richard Lawler provided one of the more detailed analyses on the practicalities of the plan, specifically the prospect of making mobile apps more data-efficient. Zuckerberg says the high cost of data is one of the biggest barriers to adoption in developing markets, and admitted that Facebook's own app could improve in this area. As part of the plan, Facebook plans to reduce the data usage of its mobile app, which reached an average of 12MB per day earlier this year, to about 1MB per day. Lawler points out that Facebook could also limit the amount of data-intensive processes on mobile phones by restricting the amount of photos some users can upload or enabling users to download content from their friends' devices with services like WiFi Direct.
Lawler, however, didn't seem entirely confident in the plan, closing his article by saying "we'll be expecting our more efficient social network any day now."
The Guardian expressed concern over the privacy issues that could stem from an internet provider whose business relies on collecting users' personal information and social interactions.
"That approach is unlikely to find favor in countries where people are concerned about their internet use being monitored, given Facebook's emphasis on real-world identities," The Guardian's Stuart Dredge wrote.
TechCrunch's Josh Constine was one of the few who commended Internet.org's ambitions. Acknowledging that it is in the companies' business interests to open avenues into new markets, Constine says "whether or not you believe it, Facebook is truly trying to achieve its mission of connecting the world."
He also echoed the economic benefits that Zuckerberg played up in his announcement, which cited a McKinsey study estimating that the Internet creates an average of 2.6 jobs for ever one that it makes obsolete.
"If the plan works, mobile operators will gain more customers and invest more in accessibility; phone makers will see people wanting better devices; Internet providers will get to connect more people; and people will receive affordable Internet so they can join the knowledge economy and connect with the people they care about," Constine wrote.
Constine says the financial benefits of the plan are not necessarily a bad thing, as they will ensure the initiative remains sustainable.If that sounds like a Facebook statement, it's because it's not far from it.
Zuckerberg said basically the same thing in a recent interview with The New York Times. "The Internet is such an important thing for driving humanity forward, but it's not going to build itself," he said. "Ultimately, this has to make business sense on some time frame that people can get behind."
However, the Facebook founder also claimed in that same interview that the immediate profits from the initiative will be minimal, and the motivations for Internet.org were mostly altruistic from the start.
"We're focused on it more because we think it's something good for the world, rather than something that is going to be really amazing for our profits," Zuckerberg told the Times.
Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is email@example.com.
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