MONEY

Facebook CEO hits "share" to help bring the 'Net to the world's poor

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg at a Facebook event earlier this year. He announced this week an initiative to try to cut the costs to bring Internet access to the billions of people globally who do not have it. Photo: San Jose Mercury News

Mark Zuckerberg announced an ambitious effort to bring the Internet to billions of poor people earlier this week. Is was the latest move by Facebook's leader to carve out a high-profile role as a tech CEO who can influence public issues.

He’s not the only one of his peers promoting the power of technology to change the world. But Zuckerberg’s industry alliance to promote global Internet access has a grand scale and ambition. It makes him one of the most prominent advocates for Silicon Valley’s unique blend of business and altruism. And he is only 29 years old.

Still, critics scoffed on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at what they viewed as self-interest wrapped in noble-sounding words that accompanied the announcement from Zuckerberg and his new Internet.org coalition. And it’s not the first time his efforts have run into that criticism.

Helping more people get online is clearly in Facebook’s interest, said longtime Silicon Valley observer Paul Saffo. It also represents a recent trend, he said. Rich business people used to wait until they retired to become philanthropists. Now they are expected to be active in charity as they run their businesses.

Project Loon And Hyperloop

Earlier this month, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk held a press conference to promote his idea for the Hyperloop. It's a futuristic transportation system that he hopes someone else will build. Google CEO Larry Page spoke at his company’s annual software conference in May about using software and information to solve problems like world hunger. Google is also pursuing its own ideas for delivering cheap Internet service. Those include using a fleet of radio-equipped high-altitude balloons under its Project Loon.

“I think we’re all here because we share a deep sense of optimism about the potential for technology to improve people’s lives,” Page told conference goers.

Page more often shuns the public spotlight. But Musk and Zuckerberg have both learned to use their own fame. Zuckerberg drew worldwide attention to his new coalition by announcing it on his personal Facebook page Tuesday night. He also gave interviews to the New York Times and CNN. CEOs of other companies involved in the effort haven’t been widely quoted on the project.

The same sort of thing happened when Zuckerberg launched the advocacy group FWD.us earlier this year to lobby for immigration reform, including policies that help the tech industry. He announced it in a first-person essay in the Washington Post. A number of prominent tech executives and bankers signed on to the FWD.us organization. But it’s widely viewed as Zuckerberg’s group.

Cheaper Smartphones And Apps

The Internet.org alliance currently consists of Facebook and six companies that make mobile phones, smartphone processors and mobile software. They plan to work together to build lower-cost smartphones, make apps that are faster and cheaper to use, and create financial incentives for companies to provide telecommunication service in poor areas.

The alliance doesn’t include any telecommunications providers. Facebook is the only Internet company involved. Still, one expert said the effort could help by lowering some of the costs that keep two-thirds of the world’s population offline.

“It’s an incremental improvement on technology that’s already proven,” said Richard Bennett at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. A number of groups are working on Internet access, he added. But the problem is so large that it will require a variety of solutions.

Others had more questions about Zuckerberg’s plan.

Many commenters noted that Facebook could have more members if more people are online. Then it could make more money selling ads. “And that’s really the point here: Don’t pretend to be saints. We are not stupid,” commentator Alexis Madrigal wrote in the Atlantic, paraphrasing one Internet post.

Madrigal also said that getting more people using the Internet also expands the reach of American spying efforts.

Wealthy And Well-Known

Zuckerberg also faced criticism after FWD.us aired television ads that supported legislators who backed immigration reform. In some cases the ads praised their unpopular political positions.

“That was an extraordinarily bad idea,” Saffo said. But, he added, “I think there’s a lot less risk” in the new effort. “You don’t see anybody demonstrating against Internet access.”

Zuckerberg is one of the wealthiest and most well-known tech CEOs in the world. He has donated $600 million in cash and stock to New Jersey public schools and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in the past three years.

Wealth and position bring responsibility, Saffo said. "And the earlier that he’s been successful, the sooner the public expects him to step up.” Saffo added that "he’s clearly still finding his way.”

Zuckerberg has acknowledged Facebook stands to benefit from putting the Internet within reach of more people. Indeed, its growth rate is slowing in the developing world. 

Still, Zuckerberg argued in a position paper: “The unfair economic reality is that those already on Facebook have way more money than the rest of the world combined, so it may not actually be profitable for us to serve the next few billion people for a very long time, if ever. But we believe everyone deserves to be connected.”

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