Internet access is a human right, says Zuckerberg


By NATALIE WRIGHT
Managing Editor

Facebook illustration

Illustration by George O’Donovan

In the next 10 years, everyone in the world will be connected to the Internet – if everything goes Mark Zuckerberg’s way.

In August the founder and CEO of Facebook announced the launch of his latest project, Internet.org, with the goal of connecting everyone in the world to the “knowledge economy” through internet-capable mobile networks.

To achieve this goal, Facebook teamed up with six telecommunications companies – Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung – to form a global partnership to share knowledge and invest in research and development.

In time, the partners hope to include NGOs, and academics in their efforts, they said in a recent report.

Over the past few years, Facebook has invested more than $1 billion in bringing Internet to the developing world, Zuckerberg said in a press release.

And today, more than six billion people in the world have access to mobile communications, but only 2.7 billion have Internet access, Hans Vestberg, president and CEO of Ericsson, said in the report.

Smartphones are seen as luxury items, and many cannot afford them, but in some ways they are becoming more like necessities, said Gregg Heidebrink, an economics instructor at Washtenaw Community College.

According to Zuckerberg, they are necessities, and Internet access is a human right.

In the developing world people are going to use the Internet and tools like Facebook to decide what kind of government they want, get access to healthcare information, and re-connect with family they haven’t seen in decades, Zuckerberg said in an interview with CNN.

In the leading developing countries like China and India, Internet connectivity is not an issue, said Nitya Singh, who teaches international and Asian politics at Eastern Michigan University.

They generally have 3G everywhere other than the most remote areas, he said, and it has had a huge role in the recent explosion of development in those economies.

“In a developing country like India, the role of the Internet has gone beyond just giving people access to general information,” Singh said.

For example, farmers in India can use their mobile connections to access real-time market data to find fair prices of the crops they’re selling, he said. This helps protect them from being taken advantage of in global markets.

If Internet.org can provide more people with resources like these, it could transform the way of life in developing countries.

The focus of the venture is to increase the efficiency of mobile networks and apps to make access more affordable.

By increasing efficiency the industry can decrease the costs of delivering data. This will not only make access affordable to a much wider base, but it will also improve the performance across existing networks.

No company can achieve this alone, Zuckerberg said in the report. It requires a new level of collaboration in the telecommunications industry, focused on building and sharing new information and tools, he said.

And people have high hopes that if this project is a success, it could change the world forever. After the Twitter-fueled revolution in Egypt, the world saw how connectivity can give birth to significant political change.

“The ability to connect to knowledge, and the ability to know what’s going on in the rest of the world is huge not just for economic reasons, but for political reasons,” said Heidebrink, “To be able to see how things work differently or may work better somewhere else can help people see how to change their own situation.”

This is the hope of Internet.org’s partners.

“We are committed to shaping the Networked Society – where everyone and everything will be connected in real time; creating the freedom, empowerment and opportunity to transform society,” Vestberg said in the press release. “We believe affordable connectivity and Internet access improves people’s lives and helps build a more sustainable planet.”

While some are concerned that this effort is more self-interested than the partners are letting on, Zuckerberg has defended the project against suggestions that it is not a wholly humanitarian effort.

“If we were just focused on making money, the first billion people that we’ve connected have way more money than the rest of the next six billion combined,” he told CNN.

But if the telecommunications industry can achieve superior network performance, it would produce enormous benefits for them, Qualcomm said in the report. Opening untapped markets of potential Internet users will drive growth and create new opportunities for these companies.

The improved technology also means that current networks will run more efficiently, which will build customer satisfaction and loyalty, it said.

Right now, Internet adoption is growing by less than 9 percent each year, which is slow considering that it is still in its early stages, according to the press release.

For a company like Facebook (which went from 200 million to 1.15 billion users in the last four years) to continue to grow, it needs to find a way to access new markets.

There are still hurdles for the partners to overcome, and the plan is still rough, Zuckerberg said in the press release.

But if the partners and the rest of the industry can work together to improve network and app efficiency, develop lower-cost, higher-quality smartphones and work with governments to localize services, the goal of connecting everyone in the next decade is possible, said the report.

And if this happens, it means a different world. Internet.org partners are calling it the next industrial revolution, and they intend to make it all-inclusive.

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