Zuckerberg’s internet for the poor.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced an ambitious plan to bring internet access to 60 percent of the Earth’s population. You and I might prioritize other things but bringing internet connectivity to the world but seems on face value like it must be a good thing.

You can see why Zuckerberg is in favour, Facebook gets to expand it’s addressable market and developing countries get better internet access -everybody wins. Of course in the end despite all his talk about human rights it is really about increasing Facebook’s share price, but it is churlish to think he doesn’t actually believe that he is doing good. It is likely that as a silicon valley entrepreneur he truly believes that technology plus capitalism will emancipate the individual and make the world egalitarian. After all if the internet can enable him an impoverished son of an dentist and mere Harvard student can to become a billionaire through sheer hard work and brilliance why can’t it do that for everyone?

Unfortunately buried in Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post: “Is Connectivity a Human Right?” is a section that puts an more sinister spin on it.

Credit and identity infrastructure

Over time, we may be able to help improve some of the social infrastructure that is still nascent in many developing countries. The lack of credit infrastructure prevents operators from offering post-paid models that could enable them to make longer term investments in their customers. And while operators know some information about their customers, the pre-paid model prevents them from knowing who their customers are. Giving people the ability to link their Facebook or other accounts with operators could help solve these problems and make it easier to provide better service.

Zero-rating data (for Facebook)

We think this model exists. We’ve already seen results where attaching free data for Facebook
— what we’ve historically called zero-rating — increases both phone sales profits and data plan profits. From there, it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to also offer a broader set of basic internet services as well once the industry achieves the kinds of cost efficiencies described above. Most people in developing countries probably consume more data using Facebook than from all other non-data-intensive services combined.

Well quite aside from the fact he ignored Safaricom’s M-Pesa (the most developed mobile payment system in the world) this section makes it clear what Facebook’s agenda really is. The Faustian bargain he is offering developing countries is :

  • We will support you in developing your internet but we will do it in a way that embeds Facebook into it’s very fabric and ensures we know everyone’s identity, financial transactions and online activity
  • Facebook data shouldn’t be metered. Other less important stuff like Weather data, Warnings, Farm prices, Government and NGO information, Educational resources might be zero rated later if it doesn’t cost too much.

So what has this got to do with Cyborgs, Bigdata and wearables you may be asking. Simply that it shows the Californian ideology / silicon valley ideology for what it is – surveillance and cybernetic neoliberalism masquerading as a force for social good when its main aim is simply to increase it’s power and profit. In a similar way to which Google wants to conquer physical space and extend its reach into our social lives and homes Facebook wants to conquer the globe and extend its reach to the most remote locations. God forbid that their be an place or a person which isn’t on the social graph.

Update

Zuckenberg got a lot of push back and criticism from various sources and has responded by being interviewed in this wired article here.

Zuckenberg’s major claim in the interview is that getting everyone online will reduce wealth disparities.

The richest 500 million have way more money than the next 6 billion combined. You solve that by getting everyone online, and into the knowledge economy — by building out the global Internet

This is a strong and controversial claim. For example: Jaron Lanier argues the exact opposite claiming that free information is impoverishing the middle class, promoting inequality and allowing corporations to shift risk and costs onto society. Several economists have argued that network effects cause winner take all dynamics. Indeed this is the reason why Facebook is dominant and valuable. Finally several sociologists have shown that the idea that everyone is participating equally in the digital world is a myth. Rather there are is a mass of content consumers, few content producers and a hand full of people actually getting paid.

Given the controversial nature of the claim (It may well be orthodoxy within silicon valley) one might have hoped that Zuckerberg would offer an argument why it is true. However he completely dodges the interviewers argument that the rise in the internet has been accompanied by increasing income gap in the USA and instead of engaging with the question simply re-asserts his faith position.

WIRED: But we have a connected knowledge economy here in the United States, and the income disparity has never been worse. We also seem more polarized.

Zuckerberg: A transition naturally has to take place. I taught at a local middle school this year, and a lot of students there didn’t have access to the Internet at home. So there’s a lot of work we need to do in the U.S. It won’t be like, “Snap your fingers, everyone has the Internet, and now the world is fixed.” The Industrial Revolution didn’t happen in a decade, either. You need a foundation so that the change can happen.

For Zuckerberg  the internet is unquestionably an equalizing force. The possibility that it might not automatically promote freedom and equality is so heretical that it cannot even be discussed.

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