Let them have internet

Facebook and others are trying to bridge the digital divide. But how will they accomplish this?

In Mark Zuckerberg's latest foray into more philanthropic ventures, Facebook has partnered with other technology companies to launch Internet.org, which aims to bring online the parts of the world without internet access some five billion people, mostly in developing countries. This is a laudable goal, one that marries a noble pursuit with the time-honoured pursuit of profit by creating more potential Facebook users. Nor is this coalition alone in its efforts. Google understood the impact connecting people could have on its revenue stream some time ago, and launched, in typical Google fashion, the slightly kooky Project Loon, where internet-beaming antennas mounted on giant helium balloons are let loose in the sky.

Such efforts underline how much the internet has become a fundamental public good over the last couple of decades. In countries such as Costa Rica and Finland, connectivity to the internet is regarded as a human right. The exercise of basic rights, the argument goes, becomes limited if a person is denied online access. Such a perspective is bolstered by narratives that perpetuate the idea of the internet as an inherent enabler of free speech. Fetishising internet access may be counterproductive, but it is well documented that connectivity improves economic outcomes a 2011 McKinsey report shows that the internet accounted for 21 per cent of the GDP growth in developed countries over five years. Thus, the people left outside the Net according to the World Bank, 61 out of every 100 are not connected are denied a fair opportunity for economic and social well-being.

But Zuckerberg and his fellow digital missionaries leave some big questions unanswered. For instance, Internet.org aims to improve data efficiency by improving transmission and streamlining apps, which is great. But without data networks, efficiency is irrelevant. Internet.org is silent on infrastructure creation, and therein lies the rub.

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