Critics respond to internet.org

The Boardroom

by Ben Sullivan| 29 August 2013

Plus oDesk's Matt Cooper explains its potential impact on jobs

There has been varied reaction to the news that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is launching a new project which aims at making internet access available for the entire population of the planet.

Internet.org will work with partners such as Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung to connect the remaining two-thirds of the world's population to "bring everyone the same opportunities that the connected third has today."

"Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it," says Zuckerberg.

Nobel Peace Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus has even endorsed the project, saying that: "Extending Internet access, in an almost costless way, to the next 5 billion people is key for solving all social problems."

"Using the combined power of technology and social business will enable any individual anywhere in the planet to change the world in the fastest possible time. Internet.org will help transform a small piece of solution of a giant problem, in one unknown location, into a global solution."

But is Internet.org really the humanitarian mission that Zuckerberg claims it to be? In this blog post, I explored some of the ulterior motives that I believe are behind Internet.org, and these have been echoed throughout critics around the world following the announcement.

The majority of critics are saying that the effort is a thinly disguised marketing scheme, with Rebecca Greenfield from the Atlantic Wire saying: "Facebook wants more Internet customers because it has exhausted the connected world and it needs to grow."

With over 1bn users, Facebooks growth is indeed slowing, with Zuckerberg admitting himself that Facebook stands to "benefit from" improving global access to the internet.

In response to this criticism, Zuckerberg has said in an interview with WIRED that "The billion people who are already on Facebook have way, way more money than the next 6 billion people combined."

"If we wanted to focus on just making money, the right strategy for us would be to focus solely on the developed countries and the people already on Facebook, increasing their engagement rather than having these other folks join."

zint

Matt Cooper, the Vice President of International and Enterprise at oDesk, got in touch to argue why he thinks that Internet.org is a beneficial project, and what potential impact it could have on jobs.

"The Internet has been shown to improve economic conditions in countries that have access. If the two-thirds of the world that's currently unconnected is brought online, the impact will ripple beyond just those countries, by helping everyone around the world to work together. Specifically, if more people are able to tap into job opportunities via the Internet, the positive impact will be twofold: One, businesses will be able to alleviate talent shortages, helping them grow faster and two, more professionals will be able to find work and earn what they are worth in a global economy," said Matt.

"To quantify the potential positive impact, let's assume that Internet.org extends connectivity to the 5 billion people in the world who are unconnected. Based on current Staffing Industry Analysts market projections, analysis we've done at oDesk predicts that such a change would lead to approximately $27.6 billion of additional work via the Internet over a 10-year period."

Cooper echoes Zuckerberg's presentation of a vision of a world in which low-cost Internet access, innovative business models, and highly efficient apps for mobile devices would help the economy grow in developed and developing markets alike.

However, even this claim is receiving scathing opposition. Jen Schradie, a sociology doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley said in a blog post critiquing Zuckerberg:

"But where you get stuck, really stuck, is in your neat bar charts from McKinsey in which you talk about how technology is associated with GDP growth in developed countries. Write this down: correlation is not causation. It's a neat phrase to throw around at cocktail parties. But for our purposes, the Internet in and of itself will not solve the structural problems in the developing world. Think about it this way - the economic advantages that the developed world has, often on the back of the developing world, could be fostering Internet growth, rather than the other way around."

Furthermore, In a June Bloomberg Businessweek article, for example, Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who studies the link between technology and economics, picked apart a 1999 Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland study that's often used to establish a causal link between Internet use and economic growth. The study does indeed demonstrate "a positive relationship between the number of Internet users in a country in 1999 with gross domestic product growth from 1974 to 1992." But Kenny adds mockingly: "Usually we expect the thing being caused (growth in the 1980s) to happen after the things causing it (1999 Internet users)."

However, Matt from oDesk told us that with expanded internet use can come a solution for unemployment and tech talent shortages.

"An opportunity of that [internet.org] scale indicates just how poorly our job market currently functions. We have high unemployment rates, yet we constantly hear about talent shortages, especially in tech.

"Imagine a different world, in which these talent-constrained companies can make the hires they need by finding people online and, in turn, give more work to the people who want it. The Internet removes geographic barriers, allowing people to connect and work together regardless of where they live. Moreover, it creates a market for highly specialized skills in nearly every sector of computer-based knowledge work."

"I've been in a unique position to witness this dramatic disruption. Earlier this month, the company I work for -- the online workplace oDesk -- announced reaching $1 billion in work completed via our platform. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg; online work could hold an answer to the job market's inefficiencies, but we are only getting started," continued Matt.

"Internet.org may be just a lot of talk at this stage, but the promise it holds is very real. I look forward to seeing the positive impact it may bring."

It's going to be a long time before we can prove anybody wrong or right on this matter, and see what the future really does hold for Zuckerberg, but I think one thing we can all agree on is that he would be doing himself a massive favour by just admitting the economic benefits of Internet.org for Facebook and its shareholders

Just stop with the hot air, and just get on with capitalism Mark!

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