'No silicon bullet'

Zuckerberg pledges to connect refugee camps to the Internet

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has pledged his support to the “Connect the World” campaign working to make universal Internet access a reality by 2020. This initiative will push countries from around the world, with assistance from the United Nations, to expand Internet connectivity to all of their citizens. But what of the many millions of people current living without a country they can call home?

The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees said in June that there were almost 60 million refugees or “internally displaced persons” around the world in 2014 — the highest number seen since World War II. Some risk their lives to seek asylum in other countries, only to be turned away or even attacked once they’ve arrived at their destinations. Many other refugees never even reach that point.

The camps in which these refugees often find themselves have been described as “hellish.” They are also dangerous: The United Nations warned in 2013 that hundreds of thousands of refugees were at risk as winter storms hounded the Middle East. Even more-established camps, such as the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, are defined by complaints about unreliable access to water and electricity.

Given all that, efforts to offer Internet access to these camps might seem strange. What good is Facebook in a place where electricity is only available in the night, food is farmed around ramshackle buildings, and many people struggle to survive? Well, according to Bill Frelick, the Refugee Rights Program Director at Human Rights Watch, having access to the Internet is more important than one might think.

“I think this is an important and quite worthwhile initiative. I have definitely interviewed many refugees whose main preoccupation is the need (and difficulty) in communicating with separated family members,” he says. “After taking dangerous sea voyages the first thing most refugees and migrants want to do is to tell relatives that they have survived. When communication is cut off, refugees’ anxiety becomes palpable.”

Zuckerberg preemptively responded to one of the key criticisms of this effort: That Facebook is trying to appear selfless, when really this project serves the company’s goal of having as many people as possible use its service. “It’s not all altruism,” the New York Times reported him saying. “We all benefit when we are more connected.” He knows Facebook will come out ahead; Frelick says affected refugees will, too.

Still, there were will be questions about this initiative. Will Internet connectivity be provided through Internet.org, the organization Facebook set up to provide Internet access in remote areas, or some other group? On what devices will refugees be able to access the Internet? Will the access be free, or will it be paid for by refugees or rights organizations? So far, little about the plan has been revealed to the public.

Providing the connections via Internet.org could prove to be a problem. The organization has been criticized in the past for violating the principles of net neutrality by giving preference to some websites and services over others. It was also criticized for not allowing the services it enables to encrypt user data, but it has since enabled encryption in its Android software and its primary Web portal.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which previously criticized Internet.org for the perception that it violates the spirit of net neutrality, declined to comment for this post. I reached out to Facebook and Internet.org to get more information about their plans (and to see if the latter group will be involved in this effort) but haven’t heard back. I will update this post if they respond to my email after publication.

Zuckerberg acknowledged the difficulty of his task in a New York Times op-ed written with his partner, Bono. “It’s one thing to say we should connect the world. The real trick is how,” they wrote. “There’s no simple solution or silicon bullet.” Given the current state of refugee camps around the world, and the problems that have plagued Internet.org since its founding, that might be an understatement.