During the summer Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, launched an initiative to get the 6 billion people not yet on the Internet better connected. His vision is that everyone, even those who can’t afford smart phones, and who don’t have high speed connectivity, should have enough access to information and online resource that some of the great imbalances in the world will be corrected. Naïve idealism is the one thing most likely to actually change the world, and Zuckerberg appears to have more than his fair share, but there was a number of things about his announcement that rankled and left a few of us feeling uneasy:

  • Although Zuckerberg is talking about making the Internet available to everyone many confuse the Internet with Facebook. Even in the developed world, Facebook is many people’s first and only experience of online networks and the relationships that they enable.
  • Zuckerberg’s decision to call the organisation internet.org has been described as disingenuous by some, blurring the lines between not for profit and commerce. Like it or not, Facebook is part of corporate America. It has shareholders who expect a return on their investments, it comes from a particular culture. It is also closed. All of this makes is very different from the original Internet, which was designed to be open and with no centralised management, and the web which spread like wildfire once Tim Berners Lee made the web's underlying standards open rather than proprietary. .
  • Zuckerberg is conflating technology with what we do with that technology. He talks in his promotional material for internet.org of connectivity being a human right. But is it?  Is connectivity in and of itself a good thing? Doesn’t it depend what we do with it? Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the internet” and heavily involved in the standards bodies that hold it together wrote in the New York Times, long before Zuckerberg’s initiative that ““Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection — without pretending that access itself is such a right.”

This apparently benign and straightforward initiative also raises wider issues about Internet governance. Should market forces be allowed to determine the direction of the internet, should governments - or should neither? The current concern about the NSA getting back door entry to the encryption systems of the Internet has made more people aware of the importance of an open Internet that we can trust. Their actions have pushed more people towards the open source world, and made people less naïve about ownership of the Internet. More people now care that we make the most of this amazing opportunity that is on a par with the printing press in terms of its impact on society.

Maybe Zuckerberg’s initiative will quietly disappear in a mêlée of conflicting interest - or maybe it will succeed in providing more accessible infrastructure to more people. But we shouldn’t let him do so without keeping a wary eye on him, questioning his motives at every turn, and ensuring that none of what he is doing favours closed rather than open systems. What is important is not just that more people have more technology but that their access to it accelerates rather than slows the internet’s impact on our world.

 

Euan Semple is a public speaker, writer and consultant. Twelve years ago, while working in a senior position at the BBC, Euan was one of the first to introduce what have since become known as social media tools into a large, successful organisation. He has subsequently had seven years of unique experience working with organisations such as BP, The World Bank and NATO to help them try to do the same.