Inside Facebook’s Ambitious Plan to Connect the Whole World
Thursday, January 21, 2016
The stern woman behind the press desk at the United Nations is certain I’ve made a mistake about the person I’m here to see. “Mr. Mark Zuckerberg?” she says. “Who’s he?” He’s an Internet executive, I tell her. He started Facebook. It’s the second week of the United Nations’ General Assembly. Several hundred reporters crowd into the press holding area. Nearby, on the main plaza, heads of state stroll by. In this place, it seems, Mark Zuckerberg might as well be Mark Smith. She checks her dog-eared schedule, then makes a call, enunciating into the receiver: “ZOO-ker-burg. Mark ZOO-ker-burg.” Silence. “Yes, the Facebook guy.” More silence, during which it occurs to me the UN is like the opposite of Facebook. If it had motivational posters on the wall, they’d read: Move slow and break nothing. Finally, she hangs up and turns back to me. Zuckerberg is on the program after all, she concedes, speaking just before German chancellor Angela Merkel.
To reach everyone, Internet.org takes a multipronged approach. Facebook has hammered out business deals with phone carriers in various countries to make more than 300 stripped-down web services (including Facebook) available for free. Meanwhile, through a Google X–like R&D group called the Connectivity Lab, Facebook is developing new methods to deliver the net, including lasers, drones, and new artificial intelligence–enhanced software. Once the tech is built, a lot of it will be open-sourced so that others can commercialize it.
When you’re looking out at the world from the sunny opportunity factory that is Silicon Valley, this vision sounds wonderful. Zuckerberg didn’t anticipate the extent of the backlash his idealistic undertaking would inspire. Skeptics see his mission as a play to colonize the digital universe. They question the hubris of an American boy billionaire who believes the world needs his help and posit that existing businesses and governments are better positioned to spread connectivity.