Facebook Founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org plan has a seemingly noble purpose: to bring low-cost internet connectivity to the two-thirds of people in the world who don’t have it. It’s a praiseworthy and unassailable plan at first look, given the field-leveling potential it represents for the world’s have-nots. So where’s the love? Not in the business or tech press, that’s certain.
Here’s why: The mobile tech companies backing the initiative with Facebook all stand to profit nicely from the increased global internet usage it envisions. Internet.org’s chief goals are to make mobile connectivity more affordable and data transfer more efficient, while incentivizing businesses to lower the cost of access. Tellingly, the consortium includes handset makers and software companies but as yet no service providers, for whom the business impact is potentially less lucrative.
Defending the plan against attacks that it is self-serving and disingenuous, and its potential benefits dubious, Zuckerberg noted that the disparities created by the so-called Digital Divide could not be “solved through altruism alone” and that any plan needs to be economically sustainable. He acknowledged that Facebook, now at a billion users strong but forever needing more to grow, would “theoretically” benefit even though real profits might be a very long way off. “But I’m willing to make that investment because I think it’s really good for the world,” he said. So can he get a “Like?” Unlikely.
THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) to Zuckerberg and his Internet.org partners, for trying to save the world by helping themselves.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Business and philanthropy don’t mix, so don’t try. As a going concern, if you want to give something back, support a charity or start your own. Zuckerbook & Co. would have encountered less flack if they presented the business case for their plan first and then called out its potential economic and humanitarian upside. Corporate social responsibility is about engendering goodwill, but today’s Internet is more about business than social justice. Given Silicon Valley’s free-market allergy to regulation, its tendency toward conspicuous consumption, and occasional displays of plain disdain for the non-cognoscenti, it’s hard to accept this claim of enlightened self-interest at face value.