Mark Zuckerberg, the 29-year-old founder of Facebook, has finally gotten into the world-saving business. It's a standard career move for Web barons after they've signed up their first billion-odd subscribers. Zuckerberg has launched a coalition called Internet.org that wants to bring cheaper mobile data rates to billions more people.
"Every one of us. Everywhere. Connected," goes the tag line, a throwback to those pre-Facebook days when this actually seemed like a good idea. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the project's promotional video features African children running around to the sound of a John F. Kennedy speech about world peace. Will Facebook be the company to, at long last, "save Africa?" Of course not—but not, perhaps, for the reasons you might think.
Zuckerberg's coalition allies Facebook with a collection of other giants, including big-name hardware makers like Samsung, Qualcomm and Nokia (at least, before it suddenly became Microsoft's in-house telephone shop). The coalition's basic premise is that mobile data rates, expensive enough in the West, are even harder to afford in less-developed economies. It wants to use a variety of hazily described technological disruptions to push prices down; these include exploiting underused parts of the wireless spectrum, introducing more data-efficient apps, and finding better ways to compress the data transiting the networks, possibly using special hardware built into phones. If smartphones use less data, their thinking goes, carriers might be pressured into lowering rates.
This wouldn't be a bad thing, if it came to pass. Still, it didn't take long for Facebook skeptics to question its aims—perhaps because the project arrived in the vestments of a grand humanitarian campaign. Even at home, Facebook is not a company that has earned a reputation for looking out for the little guy—unless you define that as baffling the little guy into accidentally oversharing things.
Zuckerberg, speaking with Steven Levy at Wired, batted away accusations that this is just a scramble for new subscribers. The African advertising market is still nascent, he said, and if the company was after more revenue, why wouldn't it focus its efforts on Western consumers with vastly more money?
Well, Facebook has every reason to sign up the six billion people not already using the site, ready-made advertising market or not. It has signed up about as many people in the West as it's going to: Young users coming of age in this part of the world are already starting to perceive Facebook as a place where their parents hang out, which never bodes well.
But it's another assumption about world-saving that is more revealing. Ethan Zuckerman (a whole different Zuck), director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and a veteran watcher of IT in Africa and around the world, points out that the Internet.org project assumes that better mobile data access is the way forward for these economies. And as self-evident as this seems, it might not be the case.
The idea that the future is all about mobile is such a dogma in the tech world that it tends to obscure everything else. This is even truer in developing nations, where mobile phones were wildly successful, even before they became widespread here. Mobile penetration rates in the developing world will hit 89% by the end of 2013, according to the International Telecommunications Union. More people in these countries have cellphones than have power; entrepreneurial charging stations have long provided for those without their own outlets. Even without data, cellphones found all kinds of uses in the hands of the world's least-well-off consumers: Mobile commerce and money transfers, conducted through text message-based services like M-Pesa, have become everyday tools of commerce in parts of Africa.
But is upgrading these connections to Facebook-friendly mobile data plans going to lead to profound economic or social change? Smartphones, after all, aren't great for everything. With their small keyboards, they're better suited as tools of consumption, not production.
"It's very hard to generate some kinds of content on a mobile phone," says Ethan Zuckerman. He notes that, while smartphones are great for taking pictures and recording video, and good for hammering out short tweets and e-mails, they're less useful for writing long works, managing a business or developing software. Take Ushahidi, a crisis-crowdsourcing program from Kenya that has become a global success and helped create a growing IT hub in Nairobi. It was designed to run on mobile phones, but could never have been developed on one.
"People aren't doing that work with mobile phones," says Zuckerman. "They're doing that in an office with high-bandwidth connections."
World Bank studies back up the idea that broadband access means GDP growth—up to 1.38% in additional GDP growth for each 10% increase in broadband adoption. But in sub-Saharan Africa, access to fixed broadband—about a dismal 1%—still stinks. In fact. only about 16% have personal access to the Internet, and it's mostly slow.
To that end, Google is floating a plan to suspend broadband Internet stations from weather balloons in the stratosphere. (Its own tag line: "Balloon-powered Internet for everyone." Why not?) That might be more to the point. Better connectivity is a good thing, however it comes. But not all forms of Internet access are equal, and we might all be better served by the ones that lead to jobs, rather than to Facebook.