Aid? Give us a break!
Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg made waves recently when he announced the formation of Internet.org, a coalition of tech companies seeking to bring the Internet to the developing world.
You'd be hard-pressed to find many who believe that Internet.org is anything but a Trojan horse for some big tech companies to access new customers.
We get how this works: First World firms go into Third World nations under the banner of humanitarianism when the real point is to get their products to new sources of revenue. Been happening for years.
Yet Zuckerberg worked to spin it the other way. “Everything Facebook has done has been about giving all people around the world the power to connect,” he wrote.
“There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy. Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making Internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it.”
He even began the press barrage with the ponderous question: “Is connectivity a human right?” But what if Zuckerberg had just said: “Facebook has partnered with Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung to bring Internet access to the developing world. “There are five billion people without the Internet, and we believe that these new markets will be critical to our growth and bottom line.
“If successful, all of you that bought stock during our IPO will finally get your money back. As an added benefit, more people will get the Internet. “And yeah, 'knowledge economy' is a pretty preposterous buzz phrase.”
That would be more honest. We know none of these companies would embark on this partnership if it wasn't better for business. So let's call a spade a spade and move on.
Facebook's not alone here. Google has Project Loon, an Internet-via-balloon initiative for remote areas of the world. Yet if Project Loon were truly an altruistic mission, would Bill Gates really have taken a potshot at it, as he did in Bloomberg Businessweek?
“When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you,” he said.
Gates likely took exception to his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which does very real work for education and curing diseases around the globe, being compared with a move by a large Internet company to get new customers.
There is obviously a PR strategy at work. For Facebook or Google, the hope is that a journalist will refer to Project Loon or Internet.org as the company's “effort to bring the Internet to the Third World” instead of “effort to monetise customers in the Third World”.
But to anyone paying attention, there's a palpable level of condescension in Google and Facebook's messaging around the projects, as if the digitised public is too ignorant to decipher the companies' real motives. And that everyone else is in such non-digitised straits that these silicon missionaries will be hailed as saviours.
Most of us can decipher the difference between philanthropy and capitalism – like Justice Potter Stewart's famous description of pornography: “I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.”
This is not to say that occasionally capitalism and philanthropy's goals don't align – as they do here. More than four billion people getting Internet faster than they would have yesterday is always a good thing – a fantastic thing!
But, frankly, when I watched a fawning CNN report where Zuckerberg evangelised Internet.org's benefits for the developing world, while breezing past those for his wallet, I sat there and just thought: “Yeah, right.”
People on the whole are getting better at seeing publicly traded companies, no matter how elegant and delightful their products may be, for exactly what they are: moneymakers. (Even Apple!) We're used to it. Yet if Google or Facebook had played the honesty card we'd simply shrug and say, “Yeah, seems like a smart strategy,” and move on.
Instead the whole project – in some ways, their stated goal of helping the developing world – is marred by an icky veneer of altruism over the shrewd face of capitalism. Because no matter how much you may have loved either company before, or whatever their crazy side projects might be, you love them just a little less knowing that kindness has a big fat asterisk. – SF Gate