Much has been made of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s promise of Internet for all. There have been several false starts; in India Facebook partnered with Reliance Communications who, by most reports, are anything but. Unfortunately Vindu Goel, technology reporter at The New York Times, may be right when he says:
Facebook’s rocky experience since it brought Internet.org to India in February shows that good intentions and technological savvy are not enough to achieve a noble goal like universal Internet access.
There have also been accusations that by trying to create a lightweight internet available to all, Internet.org by default violates Net Neutrality principles – the idea (explained well here) that the whole internet should be free, open and equal for everyone.
Despite all that, it’s an impressive aspiration.
Think about all the things that we, as wealthy first worlders, have access to that those in the developing world don’t because of our access to the internet. Porn on demand, obviously. But also information about safe sex. Access to concepts such as education for girls, equal rights for everyone, and all-access healthcare. These ideas are often not the norm in many places, specifically in many of those that Internet.org is trying to reach.
Unfortunately, these concepts are also not as widespread at home as they could be. According to the Obamacare website, 11.4% of Americans are still uninsured. Girls continue to miss out on basic education across the world – according to the Malala Fund (citing numbers from the OHCHR) there are over 60 million girls being shut out of school. Numbers on equal rights are pointless – we only have to look around us to see the infringements there.
That’s what I like about Microsoft’s approach to this issue. Earlier in November, Microsoft launched their Affordable Access Initiative – a challenge issued to entrepreneurs around the world to ‘develop low-cost connectivity solutions, cloud-based services, and business models that bring the Internet to underserved markets’. Companies who apply and are selected will receive grants of $75,000 to help push their solution out.
By opening the challenge up to the public, Microsoft ensures that a variety of different ideas will be researched and developed. What works in one place may not work in another; this approach addresses that issue head-on. Not to mention the fact that by incentivising independent companies, these solutions can be deployed universally, without relying on the decision of a Mark Zuckerberg (or a Satya Nadella); keeping the solutions free from external interference (such as a push to certain websites).
Of course, this is the theory – we’ll wait to see how it works out. But as Scott Coleman, GM of Microsoft Ventures of which I am a very proud employee, said in a blog post:
…there needs to be access to technology that empowers people to dream, to think about how they can achieve more, to develop and improve their local communities, and to change the world.
That’s something we can all get behind. If you want to apply to the Microsoft Affordable Access Initiative, you can do that here.