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David Talbot

A View from David Talbot

Can Mark Zuckerberg Save Children’s Lives?

At Mobile World Congress, the Facebook CEO had no big Internet expansion idea—and had no business talking about infant mortality.

  • February 25, 2014

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last evening, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg offered news that his company was helping out with app engineering for a pilot project delivering educational materials in Rwanda. This is laudable. But he also suggested he was a serious player in expanding global Internet access. This is misleading. And he fluidly conflated Facebook’s efforts with the saving of children’s lives. This is offensive.

A bit of background: Facebook and partners last year launched something called Internet.org, with a stated goal of making access “available to the two thirds of the world not yet connected.” So far, Facebook has not done the hard work of laying fiber or other infrastructure to actually reach any more of the unconnected. Meanwhile, as we’ve pointed out (see “Facebook’s Two Faces”), Facebook use in some countries triggers higher costs for local Internet service providers by forcing them to fetch data through costly undersea cables. 

I thought Zuckerberg would announce something big around Internet expansion last night, but he didn’t. Instead, his basic strategy remains to try to get a few mobile carriers to offer free Facebook access as a way to goad newcomers who already have cellular service into clicking links and getting charged for data. This is called “free access with upsells,” Zuckerberg explained.

He said this strategy has worked with two carriers, Globe in the Philippines and Tigo in Paraguay. Data sales surged when users were teased with free Facebook access. But not everyone is biting: the Financial Times has reported that Vodafone’s CEO, Vittorio Colao, recently declined Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s request that he do the same in some countries. So here was Zuckerberg at Mobile World Congress, making the pitch: he wants to find three to five carriers who would be more amenable. 

It’s an interesting business story, for sure. Where things fall apart is when Zuckerberg starts talking about how Internet access can mean access to banking, agricultural information, education, and health care. All of that is (or can be) true. But what is Facebook actually doing to expand access, and why would Facebook be the means to deliver such information? Here the narrative grows murkier. If the upsold Filipinos and Paraguayans are now better off by some health or educational measure for having gotten free basic Facebook access and higher bills, Zuckerberg did not mention it.

And what really stood out was his mention of of “decreasing infant mortality rates” through expanded Internet access, implicitly linking his company to such a life-saving goal. He cited a Deloitte study; I read it last night. (You can find it here.) On the infant mortality point, it rested on a study done of Indian villages with and without Internet access and noted: “The village with Internet had access to Internet kiosks providing specific health information to women during and after the pregnancy.” So there was a maternal health program involved, perhaps with other interventions going along with it. That’s quite different from a Facebook account. (And areas with Internet access are also generally advantaged in other ways, geographically and socioeconomically.)

The point here is not that Internet access can’t provide such benefits, only that Mark Zuckerberg is playing fast and loose with the facts. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that he runs an enormously successful business built on collecting personal data and selling ads, or that he’s trying to expand that business via “free access with upsells.” But when he starts implying that what he’s doing will somehow help save the lives of the poorest and sickest children on the planet, he deserves to be called out.

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