Bringing food, water, medicine and education to the world's poor in developing countries are key challenges we face in the 21st century and the first we might think of when we consider international relief, peace and development.

However amongst these challenges is also the growing need to bring the internet to the world's poor - there are currently 4.3 billion people without it! So great is the perceived necessity of internet connectively and its potential progressive uses across the developing world, that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has even declared internet connectivity to be a human right and, through the launch of 'Internet.org', is aiming to bring free access to less developed counties.

So what's the big idea?

With only 2.7 billion of the world's 7 billion people having access to the internet, Mark Zuckerberg has partnered with Samsung, Ericsson, Microsoft and several other big telecoms businesses to launch a free internet service 'Internet.org' for developing countries, which has already been launched in Zambia, India, Colombia, Guatemala, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, the Philippines and Indonesia. Since most people in these countries only own (often basic) phones but not computers, these companies have teamed up to absorb the data costs associated with handling website traffic in these countries. By working together to make their mobile networks more efficient, these companies overcome the lack of infrastructure and funds for investment in fast data networks in such emerging markets.

As a result, individuals in developing countries who can't afford to pay for the internet, are provided with low-data use of selected internet services for free, through Internet.org. Simply put, bandwidth for these website visitors are paid for to the network operator by the websites themselves - so the website users get to surf at no cost, albeit they can only access a handful of sites that have paid to be there.

The internet in developing countries: why it matters

This stuff really matters and for a number of reasons. Firstly, connectivity is directly linked to economic growth; the World Bank estimates that a 10% increase in broadband penetration results in a 1.38% increase in a country's Gross Domestic Product ("GDP"). The internet fosters productivity and enables innovation across all sectors of the economy. In developing countries it has often spurred and enabled creative solutions to overcome the limitations arising from economic constraints and limited infrastructure.

Secondly, as Zuckerberg has rightly pointed out, whilst connectivity in the West means the ability to keep up-to-date with Twitter, in the developing world it has far more reaching consequences such as the means to connect remote communities, deliver public services, facilitate freedom of speech, forecast the weather, access healthcare information, raise medical help and provide education resources. In short, it has the potential to lift millions from poverty.

It also matters because the numbers are astronomical. In one report by Deloitte (admittedly commissioned by Facebook), they estimated that the economic activity resulting from internet connectivity in developing countries could generate $2.2 trillion to GDP and 140 million new jobs.

Altruism V commercialisation?

So this is all hunky-dory right? Well ... perhaps not. Internet.org has been criticised for violating 'net neutrality' and privacy.

The principle of 'net neutrality' is that internet service providers should enable access toallwebsites without favouring or blocking competing sites. However, Internet.org's plan was to restrict and put a limit on which websites could be accessed - at least it was originally. In the face of a massive backlash in India, Facebook opened up Internet.org to allow other website developers to join the Internet.org platform. However, such websites must qualify Facebook's stringent criteria before they are approved. For example, websites must not be data intensive, they must run on cheap phones and they must encourage exploration of the broader internet - essentially encouraging users to pay for wider internet access.

So whilst delivering a limited version of the internet for free can be viewed as altruistic - and is certainly being pushed by Facebook that way, is it right that these users can only see a handful of sites that have essentially paid to be there? Without access to other parts of the internet?

 

Anti-Internet.org campaigners have taken the (perhaps) extreme view that providing such an exclusive version of the internet to developing countries is a charge of 'economic racism'. That is, the creation of a poor internet for poor people - offering a shoddy, stunted version of the real thing and forcing individuals within these countries to fall victim to the monopoly of Facebook, under the guises of corporate social responsibility. It has also been accused of inhibiting real social, political and economic opportunities and benefits that could be facilitated by the internet - its original professed purpose. Another criticism has been that Internet.org has prevented small companies from being able to access the platform, stifling competition with Facebook attempting to regulate the internet.

Reinforcing the fear of an internet ruled by Facebook is the research that 65% of Nigerians, 61% of Indonesians, and 58% of Indians actually agree with the statement that "Facebookisthe Internet" - compared with only 5% in the US. In effect, millions of Internet.org users have no concept of the internet as an independent vehicle from Facebook - and know of nothing else. That's a pretty shocking revelation when you consider that Facebook's intention was to bring the internet to the world's poor - not just Facebook!

Another worrying fact is that Internet.org still favours Facebook's own services over its rivals, both through restricting what's on Internet.org and partnering with telecoms businesses to provide free internet services to grab more Facebook users, when it isn't free for others. What's more is that Facebook can track Internet.org users' complete online activity, with the ability to share this data with its telecoms business partners and Governments.

The core of the issue: someone has to pay

So whilst Facebook is profiting from the launch of Internet.org as a better connected global population, in reality it can be seen as self-serving, ultimately leading to more Facebook users from which it can make money from - by using their data to sell advertising. Facebook has spent years developing this business model rather than charging for its services upfront. However ultimately, the hard fact is that somebody has to pay for the internet, and in countries with no money, without Facebook's Internet.org, many would go without.

So the question comes down to what matters most - connectivity or neutrality? Is it the case that the benefits of connectivity outweigh the concerns over net neutrality and privacy for the world's poor? Somebody has to pay, even if it leaves a bitter aftertaste. Conceivably the real gripe is that the whole concept of Internet.org is simply long term profit making marketed as philanthropy.

At the same time, it is difficult to deny that Internet.org marks a step in the right direction; connectivity does need to happen, and it's good that Facebook has stuck its neck out to make things happen. However, most importantly we must consider the legacy of the project, and ensure that the restricted internet does not permanently monopolise the internet in these countries, which account for 60% of the world's population.

Indeed if Internet.org reaches the goal of facilitating real economic growth in these developing countries, enabling them in time to pay for their own internet services, we need to consider what will happen then, and how it will be regulated.