Gehl: Beware an Internet for all
Facebook announced this past week that it is partnering with other telecommunications firms to connect every person in the world to the Internet. The project is called Internet.org.
According to the project's promotional video, "Today, the Internet isn't accessible for two thirds of the world. Imagine a world where it connects us all."
Google already is engaged with its own ubiquitous connection system, Project Loon.
This sounds wonderful. As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg puts it, the wealthy happen to be those who are connected to the Internet. The poor, conversely, are not. Connecting the poor will ostensibly give them a chance to join the ranks of the wealthy. They could participate in e-commerce, banking and, of course, Facebooking, thus raising their standard of living (as we in America might define it).
But we shouldn't be too quick to applaud these projects. The idea that connectivity equals development is simplistic and flawed and has been for generations.
Every new communication technology since the telegraph has been accompanied by cheerleaders who claim that connection will bring about global equality and wealth. Look back through history, though, and see that economic disparity was not only not eliminated after the invention of, say, the radio, it was exacerbated.
Powerful groups maintain themselves by incorporating new technologies into their means of oppression. And power is what complicates this story.
The revelation that Facebook, Google and other firms are targeted by the National Security Agency should give pause to anyone in the non-connected world. To be connected is to have our phone records, emails, online commerce and social media activities stored and analyzed by the NSA. Do the non-connected want to be monitored like the rest of us?
Even assuming the newly connected won't be brought under the gaze of the NSA, they will no doubt be monitored by their own leaders.
Countries are comprised of political and economic elites and the non-elites who are often subject to their rule. Communications networks are almost always used by the elite to maintain and grow their power. How will a total Internet be any different?
In addition, Facebook and Google themselves are quite good at monitoring and shaping users' online lives. They are not altruistic providers of access. Rather, they desire every bit of communication to flow through their centralized servers; they want to know everyone's hopes, lusts and fears. They sell these emotions to marketers who insert themselves into our online lives and direct our attention towards getting more gadgets, diet pills and lines of credit.
Yes, Facebook and Google want everyone in the world to be connected but not to each other. Rather, they want us connected to them. They are not imagining an Internet a collection of connected networks (an inter-network). They're imagining a mono-net, where everything we do goes through a few powerful global companies and their government patrons.
If the unconnected join the global network, it should be on their terms, not Facebook's or Google's. Networks can be decentralized, built locally, with far more democratic control than by the dictates of the global and powerful.
Perhaps we might even consider the radical idea that some people in the world don't want to be connected to the Internet at all (an idea that isn't entertained by the likes of Zuckerberg).
To simply assume that connection through Facebook and Google is a human right is to continue a long, dark history of the powerful foisting their ideals, technologies, politics and economics on the less powerful.
That's not the Internet I imagine.
Robert W. Gehl is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah.