Will Facebook’s Internet.org Bridge the Global Digital Divide?

Facebook’s new Internet.org initiative is a big news item in NPTech and global digital inclusion news. The program aims to develop very low-cost Internet on mobile phones to bring the 4 billion souls on earth who don't yet have Internet to the information age — or is it?

If you go to Internet.org most of what you’ll see is a short promo video with scenes of people around the world doing ordinary things with a stirring narration from a John F. Kennedy speech. A more informative place to look is Facebook’s white paper about Internet.org. The New York Times has the best coverage I’ve seen on what Internet.org will be and what it will do. The project is a Facebook led coalition that includes phone-makers, Samsung, Nokia, Ericsson, and also mobile chip-maker Qualcomm.

The Opportunity

The opportunity is that there are some five billion mobile phones in use around the world, but the majority are feature phones, which are not connected to the Internet. This is due to the high cost of mobile data plans in the developing world compared with the amount of money people make.

The goals of the new coalition are to drastically cut the cost of Internet services on mobile phones in the developing world over the course of several years. They plan to do it by improving the efficiency of Internet networks, phone design, and cell phone apps. One target is to develop the $15 smartphone. Internet.org also plans to develop leaner apps for e-mail, search and social networks that will be very low-cost or free.

Connectivity Is a Human Right

According the New York Times “Facebook is already working on techniques to reduce the average amount of data used by its Android mobile app from the current 12 megabytes a day to 1 megabyte without users noticing.” In a CNN interview, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he's already invested more than $1 billion in his mission to get people connected. He maintains that "connectivity is a human right." Before it launched the Internet.org project, Facebook's efforts to widen Internet access include Facebook Zero, a feature phone friendly text-only version of its services.

Convergence

Internet.org isn’t alone among big tech companies working on the global digital divide. Twitter has already made arrangements with 250 cellphone companies in more than 100 countries to offer some free Twitter access, and is insuring that it will be easy to use on even the most basic mobile phones. Google's Free Zone program offers wireless users free access to Gmail, search and the first page clicked through from a search’s results on any phone that can connect to the Internet.

Criticisms

The main criticisms of the project are aimed at Zuckerberg’s “Is Connectivity A Human Right?” white paper. Mostly people are observing that the Internet as a human right crusade perfectly serves Facebook’s business objectives to increase its user base. Matt Buchanan’s New Yorker piece is really good. And I particularly like Alex Fitzpatrick’s piece in Time Magazine, “Three Reasons Zuckerberg’s ‘Internet For All’ Crusade Rings Hollow.”

Bill Gates recently came out with his view that curing diseases is a much more worthwhile cause than providing Internet access.

Then there’s the question of whether or not smartphones really are the way to bridge the digital divide. In a great piece on the Huffington Post, Gerry Smith describes a number of serious limitations of smartphones. For instance, they’re pretty painful to use for writing documents, and lots of websites provide just a partial view of what they offer on small screens. Facebook and Twitter may work well on them, but lots of things on the Internet don’t. 

Whether or not you're a true believer in "connectivity as a human right," we’d love to hear your views and experience on bridging the digital divide.

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