What is Facebook’s motivation in Internet.org?

In a recent video, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg defends Internet.org and its freemium model. Internet.org is Facebook’s initiative to bring the Internet to the two thirds of people in the world who are unconnected. They work by establishing partnerships between companies, governments, and mobile operators, and offering free access to a number of basic applications on the Internet. Additional access is offered through regular paid-channels.

Earlier today we announced we’re expanding Internet.org to give people around the world even more choice of free basic internet services. We’re doing this in a way that respects net neutrality and is also effective in connecting the 4 billion people who need access.Here’s my full video explaining our approach and what we announced today.

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Monday, May 4, 2015

An excerpt from the video:

Are we a community that values people and improving people’s live above all else? Or are we a community that puts the intellectual purity of technology above people’s need? As we are having this debate, remember that the people this affects most, the 4 billion unconnected, have no voice on it. They can’t argue their side in the comments below, or sign a petition for what they believe. (…) History tells us that helping people is always a better path than shutting them out.

I think connecting every person in the world is a great initiative, but there are some questions. For starters, opposing the “intellectual purity of technology” against “people needs” is just plain manipulation and rings an alarm in my head. Are they really opposed? I think not. Pragmatism has its dangers. Imagine if the original Internet had expanded around the World under an Internet.org-like business model.

What is more controversial, however, is that the free service in Internet.org’s offering consists of access to the Internet mostly through Facebook. This is a classic situation of conflict of interest1. Sure, Internet.org also offers free services like Wikipedia, access to job boards, and newspapers. But there is no Facebook-sized company offering, for example, free email services or other services that compete with Facebook’s messaging.

As Zuckerberg puts it, maybe this better than having no internet access at all, and they had to start somewhere. There is the old proverb –Don’t look a gift horse in its mouth. But I can’t help but also remember that if you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.

How can we be sure that Facebook’s main motivations are altruistic and not commercial? Are mobile operators’s intentions as pure as Facebook’s? An essential requirement for Facebook should be renouncing publicly to recollect, store or exploit their free-tier “customer’s” social data. I think Bill Gates solved this the right way. Instead of involving Microsoft operations directly in his quest for improving quality of life for individuals around the world, he founded the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation, which operates independently of Microsoft’s business endeavours.

  1. cfr Wikipedia, Conflict of interest: a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests (financial, emotional, or otherwise), one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation of the individual or organization. 
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