The Problem With the Plan to Give Internet Access to the Whole World

“It’s not as if anybody asked two-thirds of humanity whether they wanted to be put online.”

Dew drops are seen hanging on a spider web in Vertou, France. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's coalition to bring the Internet to the entire world, a global project known as, was recently the subject of a lengthy Time magazine story by Lev Grossman.

Grossman does a superb job of summarizing the many criticisms that have been leveled at the effort: that the Internet is largely irrelevant to people without running water and basic education; that there are dangers to trying to solve human problems with an engineering mindset; that Zuckerberg’s intuitions of the developing world are based on stage-managed, helicopter-facilitated visits to remote villages; that, like a sci-fi nightmare, Facebook’s business model harvests and profits from the captive attention of its users; that is a form of colonialism that whitewashes Facebook’s techno-imperialism under a cloak of doing good. At one point, Grossman cries out, “There are still people here on God’s green earth who can conduct their social lives without being marketed to. Can’t we for God’s sake leave them alone?”

These are all damning critiques, but what’s strange about the article is that after carefully lining them up, Grossman finds himself being talked out of each one, mostly by Facebook executives. All his protests are for nothing. By the end, he seems taken by the sheer size and apparent inevitability of the vision and calls Zuckerberg one of the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Zuckerberg himself gets (almost) the last word: “I’m pretty confident we can do it. I’m pretty confident it’s going to be a good thing.”

This is not just a problem of false equivalence, in which journalists cover both sides of an issue without taking a stand on hard facts. Rather, Grossman, like so much of the public sphere on both the political left and right, simply finds himself unable to resist the grand ambitions of Silicon Valley late capitalists. After run-ins with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, a Deloitte report commissioned by Facebook, and an anthropologist studying Facebook in Tonga, Grossman pretty much gives up: “Zuckerberg can be both enriching himself and other people, both expanding and consolidating Facebook’s dominance and saving lives, all at the same time.”

Saving lives is a stretch, but Grossman’s conclusion touches the heart of the issue. The larger problem is that we, as both American society and as global elites seem unable to put up any substantial opposition against large corporations and gazillionaires fortifying their skyscrapers of inequality as long as they can make even the flimsiest case that they’re contributing to the public good. Sandberg says, “The next decade is helping connect the people who are not yet connected and watching what happens” [emphasis mine]. We have no meaty critical response to this—no defense against powerful people running hobby experiments that affect millions of others, and “watching what happens.”

“Watching what happens” fits right in the sweet spot of the secular, pluralistic, do-as-you-please individualism that the Western world has so long clamored for, and from which politics—American politics, in any case—is singularly unable to escape.
Yet, secular, pluralistic, do-as-you-please individualism is exactly the problem. is development without representation. As Grossman notes, “It’s not as if anybody asked two-thirds of humanity whether they wanted to be put online.” Actually, if you do ask some of them, as I have done many times as part of my research in various parts of South Asia and Africa, what you hear is confusion. Most dollar-a-day people will tell you over and over that what they most want is better earning opportunities for themselves, healthcare for their families, and education for their children. Yet time after time, they will also spend what little income they have on mobile phones and value-added services such as “caller tunes,” in which you pay a fee each month so that the people who call you hear the music of your choice while they wait for you to answer. Meanwhile, many local cultures and church communities oppose the Internet because so much of the dominant use is by young men playing video games and watching porn.

Here again, knee-jerk post-neoliberal kicks in: Well, isn’t that people using the Internet as they please? Who are we (or any religion) to tell them what they can’t do with it? Yes, of course, individual freedoms should be honored, but freedom is the wedge by which the entire machinery of what author Jonathan Franzen calls “neotechnofeudalism” enters in. Freedom is the basis by which corporations seduce unsuspecting consumers so long as it isn’t causing them biological harm. I’m not suggesting that we should forbid poor people from using the Internet if they want to, but not forbidding something is a very different thing from pushing it into their lives unbidden. As those of us who are already online serfs in the developed world know, once all your friends have Facebook, it takes active discipline to avoid it.

Wherever Facebook is used, people get hooked. Hooked, like on tobacco or crack cocaine. And while Facebook’s negative effects might not be as significant as those of narcotics, they are there. In the United States, studies increasingly show correlations between time spent on Facebook and depressed mood. At many successful IT firms in India, the management prohibits Internet use for most employees. You might think that being disconnected from the world’s largest information source would be lethal for knowledge workers, but what these companies have found is the opposite—when you give your employees unfettered access to the Internet, productivity goes down. Could it be that they were spending too much time on Facebook?

Zuckerberg, incidentally, should be praised for his private efforts to boost education. He has made at least two $100-million donations to public education in America, but if he’s truly devoted to education, why not lobby for more egalitarian education in America, in addition to immigration reform? And why not make universal quality education the rallying cry for his world-saving efforts? Why not start (And, just in case you think universal Internet access is the path to education for all, think again.) It’s because, after all, is just another bid in Silicon Valley’s land grab for the world’s virgin eyeballs. As Facebook’s $22 billion acquisition of cash-bleeding What’s App shows, if you’re willing to acquire 450 million users at $50 per head, what’s a few more bucks to buy the rest?