Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg isn't an evangelical preacher, but his latest video promoting the new Internet.org Platform is filled with a missionary zeal for free basic Internet for the four billion people worldwide without access.
The nearly seven-minute video is also partly an ethical appeal by Zuckerberg to the tech community to put those without basic Internet service before their interest in "the intellectual purity of technology."
Even though the appeal is evidently heartfelt, almost spiritual, analysts noted that Facebook, the corporation, stands to benefit ultimately from its free basic Internet message.
"Zuckerberg's motivation is not completely altruistic; he has a company to run," said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Associates. "Facebook recognizes that the problem of having the Internet for all is an issue of how we pay for it. Ultimately, Internet.org is about Facebook adding more customers, even if the individual carriers for Internet.org [globally] are not profitable. There's a network effect, where everything goes up."
Near the start of the video, Zuckerburg uses an average fisherman to explain the value of the Internet in terms that may sound to some a bit like a modern-day Bible reading.
"If a local fisherman gets access to free Internet services he couldn't otherwise afford, to help him sell more fish and support his family, then that's good and we shouldn't have rules that prevent that," Zuckerberg said.
"Now if this fisherman seems like some far off case to you, remember, that if you are watching this on the Internet, most of the world lives more like that fisherman than like you. Almost two-thirds of the world's population has no Internet access."
Zuckerberg recounted how the Internet.org project has already helped mothers in a few countries with maternal health questions and students who needed study services like Wikipedia.
The purported purpose of the video is to introduce an open platform for developers to easily create services that can integrate with Internet.org. But that idea doesn't get much air time and isn't mentioned until fairly late.
The new platform itself is explained in basic terms by Facebook that urges developers to build mobile websites that don't rely on video, large images, Voice over IP or even some security features.
Stripping out such content will make it easier for basic feature phones to access Internet services and reduce the data carriers would need to offer "for free in an economically sustainable way" through Internet.org, the statement said.
The announcement came amidst criticism in India from net neutrality proponents who argued that Internet.org only provided free access to Facebook and Facebook's few preferred content providers. Some websites that had joined Internet.org threatened to leave over the controversy.
Clearly, Facebook hopes its new platform will open up possibilities for greater Internet access. The company will soon release a technical spec for developers to help reach that goal, Zuckerberg said.
"Access equals opportunity. Net neutrality should not prevent access.... It's not an equal Internet if the majority of people can't participate," Zuckerberg added in the video.
As he did in an appearance at Mobile World Congress, Zuckerberg said that carriers can't afford to offer all their Internet services for free, just basic services. Their involvement can be sustained by the prospect of basic users ramping up later to paid services, he said.
"It's not sustainable to offer the whole Internet for free," Zuckerberg said, noting it costs tens of billions of dollars a year to operate the Internet. "It is sustainable, however, to build free basic services."
He at one point repeats one phrase several times, arguing that free basic Internet "is the right thing to do" because it gives people a lifeline in emergencies, lifts people out of poverty and helps them find jobs.
Zuckerberg concludes with a direct ethical appeal to developers building mobile sites and to powerful Internet providers:
"We have to ask ourselves what kind of community do we want to be? Are we a community that values people and improving peoples' lives above all else, or are we a community that puts the intellectual purity of technology above people's needs? As we're having this debate, four billion people have no voice on the Internet and they can't argue their side in the comments below or sign a petition. We decide our character in how we look out for them."
Despite Zuckerberg's poignancy, Entner was pragmatic. "A lot of people have a missionary zeal about free Internet, but Internet.org is actually a commercial offer," he said.
"Zuckerberg doesn't need to make himself into a saint, nor do the other guys have to turn him into a devil. This discussion is about getting more customers that are otherwise not able to use the Internet. There's way too much emotion about it."
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