Hard-nosed idealism

Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to get the world online is good for business, and not just Facebook’s business

August 21, 2013
Obsession
Mobile Web
August 21, 2013

Facebook announced last night that it has a grand plan to bring online all human beings who aren’t already. “For nine years, we’ve been on a mission to connect the world,” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook wall. “We now connect more than one billion people, but to connect the next five billion we must solve a much bigger problem: the vast majority of people don’t have access to the internet.”

Zuckerberg lays out his plans in a 10-page document (pdf) titled “Is connectivity a human right?” and on internet.org, a website that shares the same name as the project. The website makes for a great read if you enjoy grand visions. It features video of poor people in Asia and Africa riding bicycles in the rain and taking trains without air-conditioning, while gentle music underscores John F Kennedy’s 1963 speech, A Statement of Peace. “No one should have to choose between access to the internet and food or medicine,” the site declares.

The document is less fun but also less woolly. Along with several partners that include handset makers, chip builders, telecoms equipment manufacturers and a browser firm, Facebook is working on a series of tweaks to the internet’s plumbing. These include making data transmissions more robust, devising ways to send the same content using less data, and creating various market mechanisms such as payments systems.

It is easy to mock Zuckerberg. But his vision for a better-connected world (if not actually a better world) isn’t born just of idealism or business sense. It is based on experience. Two years ago, the company launched “Facebook for every phone”, a way to connect to the service through older, non-smart phones; by July this year, 100 million people, or a tenth of Facebook’s users, were using it monthly. Facebook has also made it easier to show ads on older phones. The company’s latest quarterly earnings report shows that these efforts are beginning to pay off, with revenues from Asia, Africa and Latin America growing fast, if from a low base.

To reach more people in the developing world, Facebook is also making deals with carriers to let their subscribers use Facebook without paying for data. That means they spend more time on the site. Indeed, so successful has this strategy been that Nokia has started bundling free Facebook access in an attempt to sell its cheap Asha phones.

Facebook is hardly alone in this. Twitter is available without data charges on many networks. Google offers some services for free. Wikipedia Zero works on the same basis. Click away from any of these services, though, and you’re firmly in paid territory. Unsurprisingly, free access to a few basic services is one of Zuckerberg’s many suggestions for a better-connected world.

Zuckerberg’s argument is that everybody benefits: Regular people get online cheaper, mobile operators get more people paying for data, handset makers sell more phones, and services such as Facebook get more users. Indeed, Google has for years been trying to get people online for the very same reasons. The only difference is that Zuckerberg is more idealistic. “This is good for the world because everyone will benefit from the increased knowledge, experience and progress we make from having everyone connected to the internet,” he writes. Along with calling connectivity a human right, that may be taking things a bit too far. But from a business point of view, Zuckerberg’s human-rights manifesto is actually a good blueprint for growing the digital economy.

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