Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wants to end poverty, but lately his approach is coming under fire.
He’s called lifting 400 million out of poverty “perhaps one of the greatest things we can do in the world.” Zuckerberg regularly says that for every 10 people who gain Internet access, one person is raised out of poverty. Facebook launched Internet.org to seize these huge benefits for humanity.
Yet some experts say Zuckerberg is wrong. There’s no proof that giving Internet access to a person raises them from poverty. They say Facebook’s efforts to connect the developing world smell of colonialism and will ultimately serve Facebook’s long-term business interests.
“Here’s a large American company coming into India and appearing to try to have its way to gain eyeballs for what is ultimately a company that sells eyeballs to advertisers,” said Kentaro Toyama, a Michigan professor and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. “It looks like digital colonialism.”
He also rejects Zuckerberg’s claim about the benefits of providing access.
“Any idea that Internet access itself decreases poverty is deeply flawed,” Toyama said. He noted that as the United States has gone through a golden Internet age, its poverty rate hasn’t declined.
While there’s some anecdotal evidence pointing to the positive effects of Internet access for the poor, information on the long-term effects is “sketchy,” according to Johannes Bauer, chair of Michigan State’s department of media and information.
“The bigger challenge of really lifting people out of lasting poverty, that’s a more complicated policy that’s not simply addressed by providing access,” Bauer said.
The ONE Campaign, which aims to fight global poverty, acknowledges that the evidence is anecdotal and predictive.
“Much of the push for Internet access by anti-poverty activists is based on what we’re seeing firsthand,” said Tom Hart, executive director for North America of the ONE Campaign. His group is involved in efforts to spread Internet access.
Facebook points to a 2014 study that claimed expanding Internet access could lift 160 million people out of poverty, due to expected changes in productivity, employment and economic growth. Facebook paid Deloitte to conduct the report, which is the source of Zuckerberg’s often repeated stat that giving 10 people Internet access lifts one from poverty.
At a Facebook event in June 2015, Zuckerberg took that math to the extreme and said that connecting 4 billion people in the world would potentially raise 400 million people out of poverty.
A debate over tech companies such as Facebook donating Internet access in developing nations roared to life this week after India’s government banned Facebook’s Free Basics, which provided limited Internet access.
Facebook board member Marc Andreessen later tweeted, “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” Andreessen later apologized and said he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism.”
Zuckerberg responded, saying Andreessen’s allusion to colonialism doesn’t reflect how Facebook or he thinks. But for many, the altruistic talk covers up a savvy business move.
If Facebook can hook new Internet users early, it stands to gain from network effects, in which businesses with the most participants become exponentially more valuable. The effects are especially profound for digital businesses such as Facebook’s.
“Facebook shouldn’t be talking about this as a charitable effort, but as a market development effort,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT.
Since 2012, Facebook has quadrupled the average revenue per user in developing regions it labels as “rest of world.” At $1.22 per person, it’s still small compared to what Facebook makes elsewhere, but experts say the market may grow increasingly lucrative.
Facebook’s efforts have been so successful that in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, more people report using Facebook than the Internet, apparently unaware that Facebook runs on the Internet.
“In the old days it was a very blatantly aggressive and exploitative type of colonialism, based on views that you’re dealing with inferior cultures,” Bauer said. “Now it’s a digitally mediated, capitalist type of colonialism.”