Mark Zuckerberg nails why critics of his plan to connect the world are wrong

Mark ZuckerbergMichael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity FairFacebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is starting to seem a little weary of repeating the same defence of Internet.org, his non-profit initiative to bring free internet services to people around the world.

Critics, particularly in India, have been calling Internet.org an affront to the principles of net neutrality.

Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally, no matter what service it comes from.

Internet.org’s app, called Free Basics, allows users in developing countries to access only services which follow its specific developer guidelines (for example, all services need to be simple and data efficient to be included). Because Free Basics doesn’t include the whole internet and Facebook is creating the criteria for inclusion, people say that the company is building a “walled garden” that violates net neutrality principles.

Impact and controversy

Zuckberg has refuted this idea in the past, and on stage at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit last week he gave a simple, concise analogy explaining why Free Basics makes sense.

“Basically, it turns out that everything impactful you want to do has some controversy,” he laughed, with what sounded like a tinge of frustration.

Price discrimination, what net neutrality protects against, is undeniably bad, he said. But allowing Facebook and other companies like Wikipedia, job sites, or news organisations to offer their services for free, isn’t.

“If you want to sell apples and sell them to white men for a dollar and black women for $US2, that is wrong and is rightfully banned,” he said. “And net neutrality is kind of like that. If an operator wants to advantage their own video program and not Netflix, for example, that is bad. It’s good that regulation protects that. But if the person selling apples wants to donate some to a food bank for free, there’s never a law against that. It’s really hard to see how what we’re doing is hurting anyone.”

Zuckerberg said that for every ten people who get connected to the internet for the first time, one person gets lifted out of poverty and one new job is created. But people who have never had it don’t realise what they’re missing.

“If you ask these people, who didn’t grow up with a computer and have never used the internet, do you want to buy a data plan, their answer is going to be ‘Why?’ They actually have enough money to afford it, but they’re not sure why they would want it,” Zuckerberg says. “So, the answer to that requires a business model innovation, which is making the internet something where you can use some basic services that don’t consume a lot of bandwidth for free. Within a month, more than half of the people who get access to those services, realise why the internet is valuable and become paying customers.”

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