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Internet.org says connectivity’s a human right … but is that wrong?

You may have seen the recent ten-page internet.org whitepaper, bearing the imprimatur of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It heralds an initiative for the greater good that may very well change the world…

Two thirds of the world’s population do not have internet access … yet. Judy **

You may have seen the recent ten-page internet.org whitepaper, bearing the imprimatur of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It heralds an initiative for the greater good that may very well change the world as we know it.

The proposal – “Is connectivity a human right?” – outlines the plans of a commercial consortium, including tech companies such as Samsung, Nokia, Qualcomm and Ericsson, to provide low-cost internet access to the planet’s poorest nations.

The project’s website states:

Internet.org is a global partnership between technology leaders, nonprofits, local communities and experts who are working together to bring the internet to the two thirds of the world’s population that don’t have it.

(The fact that much of this proportion of non-users may also not have access to the basic necessities, such as clean running water, is not lost - but that’s for a completely different article.)

So, will this really be free access to the internet?

Not necessarily so, and probably not. Infrastructures that permit the exchange of free information still cost money.

Public libraries may be free to readers but their operation is usually paid for through council rates, city taxes or other miscellaneous revenue streams. (Incidentally, freely-accessible public toilets are a pro bono technology that are conspicuous by their absence in many large American cities.)

Let’s look at how other schemes with similar sentiments have had varying degrees of success.

A Bangladeshi organisation provides technology and education to isolated river communities in Northern Bangladesh by converting indigenous boats into schools, libraries, and computer centres. Gates Foundation

Low cost, low data, high innovation

The three chief platforms of internet.org are affordability, efficiency and the development of innovative business models at an indigenous level to help sustain the low costs of operation.

Given that principle project partners include tech giants in the mobile phone arena, this would suggest advances in these technologies could be deployed to spread the reach of low-cost, low-data intensive internet access in developing nations with less than user-friendly geographic conditions.

Spoken Web is one innovative technology designed to enable illiterate and underprivileged users to experience internet connectivity via mobile phones.

Developed by IBM Research in India in 2010, this system facilitated the creation of linked “VoiceSites”, using even modest phone apparatuses that had the potential to weave “spoken” information networks.

CIMMYT

It may not have been high-speed broadband but Spoken Web networks dealt with local constraints to mirror something close to accepted internet functionality to those who would have had none.

The internet.org initiative is also aware of such bandwidth limitations and is prepared to invest in research and development to improve the efficiency of data compression and network capabilities for environmental extremes in remote and chaotic locales.

No doubt this would be a win-win proposition as the discovery of efficiency gains for outlier regions could also be migrated for optimal use in tech deployment within a conventional urban milieu.

Another consortium for web improvement is the not-for-profit Internet2. Founded in 1996, it is primarily a coalition of university researchers with the goal developing new protocols facilitating applications that require very high bandwidth as well as very low while taking into consideration controlled delays emergent in signal processing along the way.

The new internet.org proposal would appear to be riding on this long wave of innovation but also seeking out low-cost options for web usability that are elegant in their simplicity while still having enough grunt for basic access needs.

Big ideas

Most likely the plan of Zuckerberg and company is for cheap accessibility to information for the masses, and not creating an easy portal for downloading huge amounts of audio-visual data.

In a sense, it is a scheme to give the world a global library that all can share.

In recent times, strategies for low-cost provision of internet access have been touted by other leading tech luminaries, such as Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström and Kim Dotcom of Megaupload fame, in addition to Google’s Project Loon, launched in June this year, which aims to dole out broadband for all via floating servers in the sub-stratosphere.

Google’s Project Loon plans to provide internet access to the 4.7 billion people who currently can’t access the web via a ring of huge balloons circling the globe. AAP/Google/Andrea Dunlap

Kim Dotcom’s eccentric scheme of free, low-data internet access for domestic residences in New Zealand was to be subsidised with funds won from lawsuits against Hollywood and the US government that the disgruntled ex-Megaupload chief was intending to mount.

The Zennstrom-backed FreedomPop, founded in 2011, claims to be the first US wireless internet service provider to have pledged the delivery of “100% free” fourth-generation (4G) mobile broadband internet access to its subscribers.

But it would appear to be more of a freemium model with users being given 500MB of data gratis - anything above is presumably subject to a fee. But this would probably be sufficient for basic information access and the FreedomPop liberation mantra is similar to the new internet.org ethos, namely that “the internet is a right, not a privilege”.

A retrospective look

Roadsidepictures

When television was first invented, it too was seen as a potential force for the greater good through public education and the freemium model also arose in its use, primarily for entertainment in the long run.

In retrospect, though, could one also have said that television is a right?

Critics of internet.org claim that the “greater good” pitch is one that would ultimately add more to Facebook’s coffers.

If it does improve democratic access will it be to a “walled garden” on the internet governed by Facebook? This is the same, for example, as a radio station giving away receivers that are tuned only to their particular frequency. That would be restricting competition.

Facebook is still a generic conduit to information. From an ethical vantage, cynicism regarding internet.org could perhaps be subdued if happiness increases for those denied entry to any kind of digital domain.

As the old saying goes, any journey must begin with a single step, however humble that may be.

Join the conversation

24 Comments sorted by

  1. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    Ah white people! Does your hipster outlook know no bounds?

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    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to John Crest

      This is the modern day library of Alexandrea, almost every piece of information human kind has is on the internet.

      Reciepe's, cooking techniques, survival techniques, gardening techniques, crop climate information, how to build a home out of whatever, lecture's in ethics, lectures in physics, religious texts,

      knowledge is power, arm yourself

      surely having a bunch of teens in a fundamentalist country being exposed to different idea's could only be a good thing

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to John Crest

      Well yes, yes clean water would be a good thing

      does that mean we have to stop the food, the energy, promotion of womens rights, religious freedoms until we get the water sorted?

      or can we do more than one thing at one time? I'm not sure, it does seem harsh to say to someone, I would give you some food but I haven't finished dishing out water to everyone in the world, I'll be back in 50 years to start on the food - you going to be alright unt...ophhh he already died.

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    3. Barry Nicholson

      Engineer

      In reply to Michael Shand

      I'm pretty sure you can't eat the internet... However, you can market goods to poor people so they feel under privileged, because that's all the internet is - a marketing tool. Where do you think the valuations of internet companies come from? The value to education? No - the advertising access to the huddled masses, with a few rip offs, misinformation and propaganda thrown in for good measure.

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    4. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Perhaps they'll be able to undertake performance testing at home too Michael?

      By home, I mean "hovel" of course.

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    5. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to John Crest

      What's a "hovel", John? What makes a hovel a home in your view?

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    6. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to John Crest

      That looks like a very temporary dwelling, John, more akin to a

      Tent:

      1
      : a collapsible shelter of fabric (as nylon or canvas) stretched and sustained by poles and used for camping outdoors or as a temporary building

      You didn't answer the second part of my question: what is the essential quality that defines a home as a hovel?

      For example, are these homes or hovels and why?

      http://www.theodora.com/wfb/photos/papua_new_guinea/papua_new_guinea_photos_37.html

      What about this one?

      http://us.123rf.com/400wm/400/400/belikova/belikova1103/belikova110300068/9043209-a-traditional-hut-and-satellite-dish-in-an-mountain-village-new-guinea.jpg

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    7. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Barry Nicholson

      Whats that? you can't eat the internet? thanks for that information

      "because that's all the internet is - a marketing"

      if you have any other bright idea's about you know, the internet is only a marketing tool...could never be used for social change.....or idea's about eating information technology - if any of these smart idea's come to you, please let me know

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    8. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to John Crest

      You bunch of a**holes, if someone is living in a tent then internet is obviously not their biggest concern

      do you understand what a strawman is? no one is suggesting internet is more important than food or shelter just like no one is suggesting that freedom of speech is more important than food and shelter yet we recognise freedom of speech as a fundamental human right without going into these insane simple minded arguments

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    9. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Perhaps if we accept that when a vast number of people lack decent access to water, food, shelter, etc, it's rather pointless to be arguing that they have a fundamental right to watch cat videos and argue with strangers.

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    10. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to John Crest

      Replace "Access to internet" with "Freedom of speech" and you will see how asinine your comment is

      Just because someone is dying of thirst in africa at this very moment doesn't mean that we should all ignore freedom of speech issues

      maybe go tell that young girl who got shot in the head for trying to attend school that she should give up on educating women in her region as there are some african's starving somewhere

      completely asinine and simple minded thinking

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    11. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Um, just so you know, "freedom of speech" is not synonymous with "access to internet".

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    12. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to John Crest

      On the other hand, john, you're using the Internet to express your view in the comment above.

      Notice anybody from a third-world country here doing the same?

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    13. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to John Crest

      Nobody suggested it was John,

      The freedom of speech example was showing that even though some may be starving in africa we can still work on other rights in other places

      ie. the argument that we can't talk about internet access being a human right until everyone has water can be applied to freedom of speech

      that is, is it possible to work on freedom of speech issues in one part of the world when others are starving elsewhere

      the answer is yes, yes we can do more than one thing at a time so any suggestion that we can't talk about internet access being a right because people somewhere are starving is an asinine and simple minded argument that falls flat on its face

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    14. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Whilst, Michael, I agree that you're right that we CAN do more than one thing, I'd suggest we'd all be better off if we concentrated ALL our efforts on the MOST important thing first.

      Making a public proclamation that access to the internet is a human right when access to food, water and shelter is far from secure for many is the very definition of asinine (and gestural and useless to boot).

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    15. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to John Crest

      "Making a public proclamation that Freedom of Religion is a human right when access to food, water and shelter is far from secure for many is the very definition of asinine (and gestural and useless to boot)."

      Doesn't sound to good for some reason? what about

      "Making a public proclamation that Freedom of Speech is a human right when access to food, water and shelter is far from secure for many is the very definition of asinine (and gestural and useless to boot)."

      So standing up for freedom…

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    16. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to John Crest

      You don't John, but you should be able to work out pretty simple odds like those. Perhaps you could use your internet access to research the coverage of internet services in Third World countries and First World countries then divide one into the other as a first approximation. That's something even a child (perhaps the child in that picture you showed us earlier) could do.

      Have you worked out what makes a home a hovel yet, BTW? There's not much point in discussing more complex matters if you can't define that, since it seems to be a fundamental part of your argument.

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  2. Gratton Wilson

    logged in via Twitter

    There was a recent ruling from the UN about access to the internet being a human right.Question has aeisen in connection with copyright laws also re blocking protest movements,

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  3. account deleted

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    An interesting article, but it seems to miss a couple of things. Internet connectivity allows a whole lot more than simple web access or voice connectivity. It allows people to become completely integrated into a network in a way that we are only just starting to explore. Mobile devices at present are things we look at, but before long they will be part of us, through sensors and interfaces that we will have embedded in our bodies. The third world is where such connectivity may be of the most benefit…

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  4. Joseph (Rosey) Rosenberger

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I think one should be careful with the term "right", in the sense of an unalienable right in the sense the American founding documents use it. For example, while one might have an unalienable right to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness", that right categorically ends when one attempts to commit a property theft to enjoy it, unless that taking is sanctioned by law and backed up by the use of deadly force. Then there are rights -- really just defensible claims one is granted by the terms…

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