Is Facebooks Latest Philanthropy A Clever Disguise?

By Markets Fool.com

Facebook plans to bring Internet access to the 5 billion or so people around the world who currently do not have it.

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As part of the Internet.org initiative, which it founded, the social media giant has rolled out free, limited Internet access in six states in India. Partnered with Reliance Communications, a top wireless provider in the South Asian nation, Internet.org has made its package of basic services (which includes Facebook) available to over 1 million people in India. This follows an earlier release of the free service in a handful of African countries and Colombia.

"Reliance customers in six Indian states (Tamil Nadu, Maharaashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, and Telangana) will now have access to more than three dozen services ranging from news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information," according to a release posted by the organization.

The move is part of a slow rollout of the service, which has a goal to spread Internet access via wireless phones. According to Internet.org, over 85% of the world population lives in areas with a mobile phone signal, but only 30% has access to the Internet.

What is Internet.org
Internet.org describes itself as"a global partnership between technology leaders, nonprofits, local communities and experts who are working together to bring the Internet to the two-thirds of the world's population that doesn't have it." Facebook has been a driving force behind the partnership, but other technology companies areinvolved, including Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, and Samsung.

In India, Reliance customers are being offered free access to major websites such as Facebook, AccuWeather, BBC News, Facebook Messenger, and The Times of India.

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However, Internet.org is not offering unfettered access to its users. Instead, it is delivering a path to a number of online services that people will find useful. It might not be the whole Web, but it is plenty of good stuff.

Internet.org is offering free access to news, sports, and local information. Source: Internet.org

Why is it giving away Internet access?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a strong belief that Internet access is a basic right. Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed forThe Wall Street Journalin July 2014 in which he noted that because Internet adoption only grows by 9% a year, normal expansion will not bring access to the unserved for many years to come.

Zuckerberg further explained that while most of the world lives in an area with wireless service, the cost of a data plan can place access to the Internet out of reach for many people. In his op-ed, he explained why he does not believe that should be so:

Our society has already decided that certain basic services over the phone should be free. Anyone can call 911 to get medical attention or report a crime even if you haven't paid for a phone plan. In the future, everyone should have access to basic Internet services as well, even if they haven't paid for a data plan. And just as basic phone services encouraged more people to get phones, basic Internet services will encourage many more people to get a data plan.

It is easy to be cynical about why Zuckerberg would want more people to be on the Internet, but it is worth noting that Facebook founded and has committed millions of dollars to Internet.org, including $1 million for developers to design apps specifically for the India launch. That might be small potatoes for such a large company, but it is real money that is making a positive impact.

What does Facebook get from this?
Of course, Facebook is not being completely altruistic (nor should it be). Internet.org will bring the social network millions of new users in the developing world. Those customers might not be worth much money on an individual basis but collectively, their value could be great.

Facebook has likely learned this lesson from WhatsApp, the messaging platform it purchased for $19 billion in 2014. WhatsApp has no ads and offers its service free for the first year, then charges $1 annually in subsequent years. That sounds small, but WhatsApp had 700 million users in January and could end 2015 with 1 billion, according to fellowFool Adam Levy.

A dollar per user starts to seem a little more substantive when you have 1 billion users.

Internet.org potentially puts Facebook in front of its next billion customers. That is good for the company, but it is also good for the people getting the Internet.org service.

The article Is Facebooks Latest Philanthropy A Clever Disguise? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Daniel Kline owns shares of Facebook. He doesn't like it when his mom responds to his humorous posts on the social media site. The Motley Fool recommends Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.