Facebook’s Free Internet takes a back seat
IN AUGUST 2013, Mark Zuckerberg tapped out a 10-page white paper on his iPhone and shared it on Facebook. It was intended as a call to action for the tech industry: Facebook was going to help get people online. Everyone should be entitled to free basic internet service, Zuckerberg argued. Data was, like food or water, a human right. Universal basic internet service is possible, he wrote, but “it isn’t going to happen by itself.” Wiring the world required powerful players—institutions like Facebook. For this plan to be feasible, getting data to people had to become a hundred times cheaper.
Zuckerberg said this should be possible within five to 10 years.
It was an audacious proposal for the founder of a social software company to make. But the Zuckerberg of 2013 had not yet been humbled by any significant failure. In a few months, the service he’d launched between classes at Harvard would turn 10. A few months after that, he would be turning 30. It was a moment for taking stock, for reflecting on the immense responsibility that he felt came with the outsize success of his youth, and for doing something with his accumulated power that mattered.
A few days later, Facebook unveiled what that something would be: Internet.org. Launched with six partners, it was a collection of initiatives intended to get people hooked on the net. Its projects fell into two groups. For people who were within range of the internet but not connected, the company would strike business deals with phone carriers to make a small number of stripped-down web services (including Facebook) available for free through an app. For those who lived beyond the web’s reach—an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the world’s population—Zuckerberg would recruit engineers to work on innovative networking technologies like lasers and drones.
The work was presented as a humanitarian effort. Its name ended in “dot-org,” appropriating the suffix nonprofits use to signal their do-gooder status on the web. Zuckerberg wrote that he wasn’t expecting Facebook to earn a profit from “serv[ing]the next few billion people,” suggesting he was motivated by a moral imperative, not a financial one. The company released a promotional video featuring John F. Kennedy’s voice reading excerpts from a 1963 speech imploring the students of American University to remember that “we all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” Andrew Carnegie believed in libraries. Bill Gates believed in health care. Zuckerberg believed in the internet.
Zuckerberg was sincere in his swashbuckling belief that Facebook was among a small number of players that had the money, know-how, and global reach to fast-forward history, jump-starting the economic lives of the 5 billion people who do not yet surf the web. He believed peer-to-peer communications would be responsible for redistributing global power, making it possible for any individual to access and share information. “The story of the next century is the transition from an industrial, resource-based economy to a knowledge economy,” he said in an interview with WIRED at the time. “If you know something, then you can share that, and then the whole world gets richer.” The result would be that a kid in India—he loved this hypothetical about this kid in India—could potentially go online and learn all of math.
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