Facebook & International Aid

Evgeny Morozov had a column in yesterday’s Sunday Review of The New York Times that was immediately responded to by Tim Worstall over at Forbes. Morozov is criticizing the supposedly altruistic efforts of Facebook and other technology companies (under the auspices of Internet.org) to offer mobile Internet service throughout the unconnected world. At heart, Morozov complains that maybe — just maybe — profit-seeking companies shouldn’t be the ones we rely upon to provide such services. Mainly because of, well, the profit motive. Worstall is in favor of market forces determining when/how/if those without Internet access obtain it (that is, if no company wants to run high-speed Internet cable out to your house, you’re screwed).

Worstall’s biggest mistake[1], I think, is overlooking this piece of Morozov’s op-ed:

An under-discussed aspect of the Internet.org strategy — which has already been tried in the Philippines, Paraguay and Tanzania — is the “pay-as-you-app” model, which charges users different rates for data consumed by different apps. Thus, while all apps are equal, some are more equal than others, in that Internet.org will subsidize them, while data consumed by other, “less equal” apps will be charged on an individual basis.

This setup might appeal to members of the Internet.org coalition (not to mention mobile operators), but the rest of us would find it outrageous in many other contexts: Imagine your water meter giving you free quick showers but charging you for a bath. And this is the profit-driven assumption behind Internet.org’s alleged beneficence: Once it gets enough people to take its free digital showers, more users will reach into their pockets to take a digital bath.

The point is that Internet.org and these companies’ “expansion of access” is neither free nor open if you don’t use their apps. If it’s restricted to certain sites and apps that require one to pay to access others, I guess that just take us back to Worstall’s world of profit. (Also sounds like Internet cafes may be back in style soon.) He says,

Those places that, nominally at least, pursued economic development with equality and the uplifting of the common man in mind didn’t actually have any economic development, while those places that continued to let the plutocrats attempt to exploit everyone in pursuit of a buck saw general living standards rise between 8 and 80 times (8 if we take just GDP per capita, 80 if we take highly controversial claims about improvements in products available into account).

Either he’s being sardonic here, or we’ve got bigger problems — like his rejection of even attempts at real equality. (Not to mention conflating morality with money.) Worstall’s argument reminds me of a short excerpt from Astra Taylor’s new book:

The online sphere inspires incessant talk of gift economies and public-spiritedness and democracy, but commercialization and privatization and inequality lurk beneath the surface.

Obviously, Worstall does not believe Internet access is a human right — which is where this whole discussion started. Such rights would guarantee a freedom of movement whether that’s between companies or apps or websites. More fundamentally, expecting a profit isn’t altruism.


 

1. One thing Worstall could learn, though, is that the last paragraph of a piece is not necessarily the most important part.

 

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