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How Google and Facebook are helping the underprivileged — or not

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 13 2014 1:58 p.m. MDT

A young African woman checks her phone. Can internet across the world help with poverty?

Courtesy the Gates Foundation

Facebook launched a new app last week, but it’s only available in Zambia where only about 11 percent of the population uses the Internet. The app, Internet.org, is an effort to connect “every one of us. Everywhere,” its slogan touts.

And Facebook isn’t alone. It joins Google’s Project Loon, which for the past year has been launching 200-foot, lighter-than-air helium balloons 12 miles above the earth to create a network that provides the Internet in remote areas of Brazil and New Zealand.

These efforts are part of a larger trend by tech giants to bring the Internet to developing parts of the world. For every person in the world who can get on the Internet two cannot. Worldwide, 34 percent of people have access to the Internet, and in countries like Zambia, Internet usage penetrates even less of the population, according to data from Internet World Stats.

Facebook and Google say they are attempting to close the “digital divide,” the disparity between the haves and the have-nots of access and ability to use the Internet. Of course, having the Internet offers considerable benefits for everyone, including people living poverty. That’s why, since the early 1990s, efforts to develop countries have focused on developing technology, hoping to bridge the gap between those who have it and those who don’t.

In 1993 the United Nations launched a special commission on science and technology for development, and The World Bank has an open development and technology alliance. The study of technology in development is an ever-growing field of study for academics and development practitioners.

The tech companies are joining those forces, claiming that an increase in technology, specifically Internet, will lead to a decrease in poverty. In a Facebook-commissioned report, Deloitte, a professional auditing network, reviewed literature on the relationship between technology and developing countries. The report estimated that extending Internet access (up to levels in developed countries) in Africa would add 44 million software development jobs and create entrepreneurial opportunities enough to decrease extreme poverty by 30 percent. And in India, 65 million jobs would be created and poverty would decrease by 28 percent.

Facebook’s report also says they believe by giving people access to health care information, “we could reduce child mortality by 7 percent and save the lives of 2.5 million people,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email.

But some say it isn’t so simple, and scholars are skeptical of claims, like Google’s and Facebook’s, that technology will reduce poverty.

“Any idea that more technology somehow addresses poverty is completely mistaken,” said Kentaro Toyama, a professor at the University of Michigan who researches the relationship between technology and international development. “People don’t get rich by using the Internet, they get rich by providing technologies to use the Internet.”

Can technology reduce poverty?

Google’s Project Loon launched over a remote Brazilian school to provide Internet in the classroom, a huge help to schools like Linoca Gayoso School in Agua Fria, Brazil, said the school’s principal Silvann Pereira.

“It makes no sense that a student in secondary school, almost in high school, has to do what it takes to go to Campo Maior (the nearest big city) to go to a cyber café, or climb trees to get access to the Internet,” said Pereira in a YouTube video. “I need my students to be part of the digital era. This is the only way they’re going to grow, not only as students, but as human beings with the ability to contribute knowledge to their community.”

Internet.org plans to expand to other remote areas in the world, but hasn’t yet announced where.

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