UN. Zuckerberg to the UN: The Internet Belongs to Everyone
HOODIE. A reputation is a hard thing to shake. Like when a UN moderator introduces Mark Zuckerberg by commenting that he is almost unrecognizable without his hoodie. Zuckerberg hasn’t worn a hoodie in nearly three years.
In fact, he was looking remarkably comfortable in his suit at the UN last weekend as he joined a group of speakers from global NGOs.
Zuckerberg had come to the United Nations to advocate for universal Internet access. Speaking to a body of heads of state and UN delegates, he made an impassioned plea that the Internet is a key enabler of human rights. “Insuring access is essential to achieving global justice and opportunity,” he said.
He made the speech on the day he partnered with Bono, the rockstar founder of the advocacy group ONE, to publish a connectivity declaration, which calls on global leaders to prioritize Internet access. The pair penned an op-ed for theNew York Times in which they announced their intentions to start a global movement. Dozens of people have signed it already, including Richard Branson and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Zuckerberg wants the world to understand that Internet access should be a basic human right, like access to healthcare or water. Secondarily, he wants people to understand that Facebook’s role in this effort is driven primarily by his deep social conviction that such connectivity is the best way to alleviate poverty. “Research shows that when you give people access to the Internet, one in ten people is lifted from poverty,” he said.
That may be true, but Facebook has recently had a hard time selling people on its role in furthering that connectivity after a global backlash against its Internet.org program that began in India last April. Several Indian web publishers pulled out of parts of Internet.org, which lets some publishers offer pared-down versions of services to users free through a Facebook-built app. They worried that Facebook was conspiring with mobile carriers to determine which websites qualified for inclusion. They said this violated the principles of net neutrality—the idea Internet providers should treat all online service the same. The criticism gained momentum in May when nearly 70 advocacy groups released a letter to Zuckerberg protesting Internet.org, arguing it violated net neutrality principles and stirred security concerns.
Facebook has now responded by changing the name of its app and mobile web site to Free Basics, in order to distance it from the larger Internet.org initiative and by opening its platform so that any developer can launch services from it. And it has focused on better communicating with the Indian tech community. But a defensive-sounding post from August on the Internet.org website labeled “Myths and Facts” makes clear the criticism Facebook is receiving is striking a chord. (Example: MYTH: Facebook has launched Internet.org to help drive its own growth and revenue opportunities within developing countries.) Despite Facebook’s efforts, as Wired wrote on Friday, the criticism continues. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg has invested significant time this year in talking to world leaders from Panama to Indonesia about the company’s connectivity efforts.
The UN offered Zuckerberg a broader platform to make a case for Facebook’s commitment to connectivity. After his brief address, Zuckerberg headed across the complex to a lunch where he gave one of two keynote speeches. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the other speaker.) He was the youngest person in the room by more than a decade, surrounded by CEOs, UN delegates and heads of state. He described Facebook’s partnership with the UN to bring Internet service to refugees so they could access aid and stay better connected to their families. And as Bono looked on through his signature rose-colored sunglasses, Zuckerberg formally announced the connectivity declaration. “A like or a post won’t stop a bullet, but when people are connected they have a chance to build a common understanding,” he said.
After lunch, Bono and Zuckerberg walked down into the main plaza together. (Unlike Zuckerberg, Bono was not wearing a tie.) There, Facebook had partnered with the UN to build a glass room to showcase the voices of the people who contributed to the 17 newly announced sustainable development goals. Inside, Zuckerberg showed Bono a model of Aquila, the solar-powered drone Facebook is building to supplement connectivity infrastructure. He brought Bono over to a display in which a laser was powering the streaming of a promotional video: he blocked the laser and the video stopped. And they browsed through a display of phones from different countries—such as Bangladesh and Guatemala—that demonstrated what Free Basics looks and feels like in each. Rocking back slightly on his heels, Bono offered up some advice on how to make the work resonate with users.
Zuckerberg was racing against the clock. He had been invited to address the Global Citizens Festival, a concert that drew 60,000 people to Central Park on Saturday. The festival organizers had asked him to speak just after Coldplay. But he was also set to host the Indian Prime Minister for a breakfast on Sunday morning at the Menlo Park headquarters. More than 1,500 Facebook employees were set to attend, and the Indian government planned to broadcast the visit on Indian primetime TV. Zuckerberg thought he could squeeze in both, but time ran out. He opted to send a recorded video to the Global Citizens Festival, and booked it home in time to be fresh for Prime Minister Modi. He knew that every word to India mattered.
The weekend had been critical to getting his message out there: connectivity is good for everyone. But of all the audiences Zuckerberg can address to help further Internet.org’s efforts, India may be most important. The Internet.org work continues to move forward in the country, and many other tech companies are also launching connectivity efforts there. Both Microsoft and Google announced efforts to bring more connectivity to India in tandem with Modi’s visit. But Zuckerberg still faces resistance.
Shortly before Modi arrived on campus, Zuckerberg added a filter to his profile that superimposed the Indian flag over his face to show support for Modi’s digital efforts in India. Modi promptly followed suit. It was a savvy move that suggested Modi, who has a very high approval rating in India, supports Facebook. But it might not be enough to fully quell the backlash there. A reputation is a hard thing to shake.