Sept. 16 2013 06:06 PM

Considering Mark Zuckerberg's campaign for universal access to the Internet

9-18 no life art
Mark Zuckerberg
Photo by Guillaume Paumier

    As the author of a column titled "No Life Offline," I have an obligation to ring in on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's new endeavor to make sure no living being on the planet is without the opportunity to connect to the Internet.

    Yes, I agree that, as an ideal, everyone should have access to all the kitty gif-icles that you and I take for granted. If I didn't, I'd be writing "Two-Thirds Life Offline." 

    But do I think Facebook is the right entity to be leading the effort? Well, color me ambivalent.

    Last month, Zuckerberg rolled out his new, ostensibly humanitarian project,, with a press blitz and an ethnographic YouTube teaser that looked a lot like a re-dubbed version of Rammstein's "Amerika"music video. Through a partnership with several telecommunications technology giants—including Nokia, Ericsson and San Diego's Qualcomm—Facebook has proposed a rough strategy to make the Internet more affordable, chiefly through streamlining data flow and apps over mobile networks and devices. This would bring the Internet to between 4 billion and 5 billion new people, or the two-thirds of the population that currently does not have access. In an accompanying whitepaper, Zuckerberg further suggested that "connectivity is a human right."

    That's a bold claim to make, and I'm not sure I agree. I'm not sure I disagree, either. 

    You delve into a contentious realm of semantics when you start talking about human rights. As much as I support LGBT equality, I get irritated when LGBT groups use the term "human rights' to argue for same-sex marriage but then fail to take stands on torture or the death penalty. I also roll my eyes at those who argue that human rights are synonymous with "God-given" natural rights. 

    I tend to defer to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As much as Zuckerberg may wish it did, it does not articulate a right to 40 MBps and a mouse. However, it does say:

    "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

    And it also says:

    "Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits." 

    Both those clauses, in my mind, support the ideal Zuckerberg presents. That said, the declaration also states that everyone has the right to healthcare and education, and we aren't even close to making that happen even in our own country.  

    Do I believe that we are violating the human rights of billions of people by not providing free wi-fi networks? No. But I do believe that if a government has the capability of allowing access to the Internet and does not in order to suppress its people, or, if a government selectively decides that one class of people should be excluded from the Internet, then you have a case. I also believe, whole-heartedly, that access to the Internet can advance human rights across the board, including education and healthcare. And I do believe that we are setting our planet up for a dark age of inequality if we don't agree that the connectivity gap should be closed in the next 50 years. 

    I applaud Facebook and its partners for upping the stakes in the race for universal Internet access. At the same time, it makes me groan a little. As much as Zuckerberg may downplay the profit motivation for his company, the fact remains that one objective is to grow the available market for Facebook's services. 

    Let's put it this way: Do I think it would be a good thing if free or affordable healthcare was suddenly available to the billions of people currently without? Yes! Do I think it would be a good thing if that universal healthcare were provided by Pfizer, or some other pharmaceutical giant? No, I don't, especially if, in return for that care, that corporation expects to aggregate those billions of people's medical records, gains relaxed regulations from governments and plans to test potentially unsafe drugs on populations with low medical literacy. 

    Similarly, I worry about universal connectivity being dependent on Facebook having access to personal data of billions of users who have little concept of the issues of privacy we've all grappled with this last decade of social-network growth. Further, I worry about diversity and the ability for populations around the globe to develop their own online cultures, rather than simply joining Facebook's one-size-fits-all model.

    But in Facebook's world, there is no "This is Interesting" button. So, I begrudgingly click "Like," even if I'm not sure I like it at all.

    Email or follow him on Twitter @Maassive.


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