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How Charitable Is Facebook’s ‘Internet for All’ Project?

Internet.org sounds like the most noble kind of charity organization: designed to bring broadband to the four billion-plus people around the world who don’t have access, it might be Mark Zuckerberg‘s passion project (and the promo clip is quite stately thanks to JFK).

But Matt Buchanan of The New Yorker, among many others, isn’t so sure about Internet.org’s goals. What’s the problem? Well, the project was founded by FacebookEricsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, and Samsung—seven companies that would love to get those 4-5 billion wired up so they can provide them with related services (and promo messages). Buchanan takes issue with the fact that Facebook stands to gain millions, if not billions, of new users without actually doing any of the infrastructural legwork required to make the plan a reality. It’s hard to believe, but many of the areas targeted by Internet.org don’t have any electricity, much less 4G service.

This is why Zuckerberg’s Wired interview, published yesterday, reads something like the first stop on a damage control tour.

Zuckerberg pitches his project as a symbol of the switch to a “knowledge economy” where intelligence and shareable information will drive wealth and development. He says that the business consortium has been working with local governments to figure out the infrastructure issues and that the project will not make Facebook much money anyway—at least not at first.

According to the Zuck, the project can’t be non-profit because, again, somebody has to pay to make all that infrastructure happen, and “It’s too much to be sustained by philanthropy.”

Here’s his argument against the project being motivated by self-interest:

The billion people who are already on Facebook have way, way more money than the next six billion people combined. If we wanted to focus on just making money, the right strategy for us would be to focus solely on the developed countries and the people already on Facebook, increasing their engagement rather than having these other folks join.

He says that Internet access will help developing countries create true democracy (it’s true that, in countries like Egypt, Facebook is one of the government’s primary outlets of communication) and give certain individuals their first taste of access to health care information, banking services and more.

Yet many on the very same Internet still say it’s just another plan to get more of the world to sign up for Facebook, giving the company more data to sell to partners and advertisers. Is everyone just gunning for the king by criticizing Zuckerberg’s project, or is it an expansion in disguise?

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