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A Dream for the Digital Age

PRINCETON – Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King dreamed of an America that would one day deliver on its promise of equality for all of its citizens, black as well as white. Today, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has a dream, too: he wants to provide Internet access to the world’s five billion people who do not now have it.

Zuckerberg’s vision may sound like a self-interested push to gain more Facebook users. But the world currently faces a growing technological divide, with implications for equality, liberty, and the right to pursue happiness that are no less momentous than the racial divide against which King preached.

Around the world, more than two billion people live in the Digital Age. They can access a vast universe of information, communicate at little or no cost with their friends and family, and connect with others with whom they can cooperate in new ways. The other five billion are still stuck in the Paper Age in which my generation grew up.

In those days, if you wanted to know something but did not own an expensive encyclopedia (or your encyclopedia was no longer sufficiently up-to-date to tell you what you wanted to know), you had to go to a library and spend hours searching for what you needed. To contact friends or colleagues overseas, you had to write them a letter and wait at least two weeks for a reply. International phone calls were prohibitively expensive, and the idea of actually seeing someone while you talked to them was the stuff of science fiction.

Internet.org, a global partnership launched by Zuckerberg last month, plans to bring the two-thirds of the world’s population without Internet access into the Digital Age. The partnership consists of seven major information-technology companies, as well as non-profit organizations and local communities. Knowing that you cannot ask people to choose between buying food and buying data, the partnership will seek new, less expensive means of connecting computers, more data-efficient software, and new business models.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has suggested that Internet access is not a high priority for the poorest countries. It is more important, he says, to tackle problems like diarrhea and malaria. I have nothing but praise for Gates’s efforts to reduce the death toll from these diseases, which primarily affect the world’s poorest people. Yet his position seems curiously lacking in big-picture awareness of how the Internet could transform the lives of the very poor. For example, if farmers could use it to get more accurate predictions of favorable conditions for planting, or to obtain higher prices for their harvest, they would be better able to afford sanitation, so that their children do not get diarrhea, and bed nets to protect themselves and their families against malaria.

A friend working to provide family-planning advice to poor Kenyans recently told me that so many women were coming to the clinic that she could not spend more than five minutes with each. These women have only one source of advice, and one opportunity to get it, but if they had access to the Internet, the information could be there for them whenever they wanted it.

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Moreover, online consultations would be possible, sparing women the need to travel to clinics. Internet access would also bypass the problem of illiteracy, building on the oral traditions that are strong in many rural cultures and enabling communities to create self-help groups and share their problems with peers in other villages.

What is true for family planning is true for a very wide range of topics, especially those that are difficult to speak about, like homosexuality and domestic violence. The Internet is helping people to understand that they are not alone, and that they can learn from others’ experience.

Enlarging our vision still more, it is not absurd to hope that putting the world’s poor online would result in connections between them and more affluent people, leading to more assistance. Research shows that people are more likely to donate to a charity helping the hungry if they are given a photo and told the name and age of a girl like those the charity is aiding. If a mere photo and a few identifying details can do that, what might Skyping with the person do?

Providing universal Internet access is a project on a scale similar to sequencing the human genome, and, like the human-genome project, it will raise new risks and sensitive ethical issues. Online scammers will have access to a new and perhaps more gullible audience. Breaches of copyright will become even more widespread than they are today (although they will cost the copyright owners very little, because the poor would be very unlikely to be able to buy books or other copyrighted material).

Moreover, the distinctiveness of local cultures may be eroded, which has both a good and a bad side, for such cultures can restrict freedom and deny equality of opportunity. On the whole, though, it is reasonable to expect that giving poor people access to knowledge and the possibility of connecting with people anywhere in the world will be socially transforming in a very positive way.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Practical Ethics, One World, and The Life You Can Save.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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