A short time later Zuckerberg, dressed in a dark suit and a tie, has come to make the case that the Internet should be considered, like health care or clean water, a basic human right. He sees this as the most critical social endeavor of our time. Zuckerberg believes peer-to-peer communications will be responsible for redistributing global power, making it possible for any individual to access and share information. People could tap into government services, determine crop prices, get health care. A kid in India — Zuckerberg loves this hypothetical about a kid in India — could potentially go online and learn all of math. “It’s the underpinning for helping people get into the modern economy,” he says. “Ten years from now, we should not have to look back and accept there are people who don’t have access to that.”
Two and a half years ago, Zuckerberg launched Internet.org, a massive endeavor to connect everyone in the world to the web. By his calculations, nearly two-thirds of the global population — 4.9 billion people are not connected. Most people, it turns out, do have Internet access available to them, even if it’s crappy. But they can’t afford to pay for it or don’t know why they’d want to. (If you’re feeding a family on $1,570 a year, as average Indian earners do, the web might not seem like a priority). Roughly 10 to 15 percent of the unconnected live in hard-to-reach places and don’t have access at all.
To reach everyone, Internet.org takes a multipronged approach. Facebook has hammered out business deals with phone carriers in various countries to make more than 300 stripped-down web services (including Facebook) available for free. Meanwhile, through a Google X–like R&D group called the Connectivity Lab, Facebook is developing new methods to deliver the net, including lasers, drones, and new artificial intelligence–enhanced software. Once the tech is built, a lot of it will be open-sourced so that others can commercialize it.
To sell everyone from global leaders to fellow entrepreneurs on Internet.org, Zuckerberg has transformed himself into an aspiring statesman. In the past year alone, he has “checked in” on his Facebook profile from Panama, India (twice) and Barcelona, and he has also made it to Indonesia and China. He delivered a speech in Mandarin at Tsinghua University in Beijing and hosted Narendra Modi, Indian prime minister at Facebook headquarters. He is working his way through a reading list heavy on political and international – development titles, like Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty.
For Zuckerberg, Internet.org is more than just a business initiative or a philanthropic endeavor: He considers connecting people to be his life’s work, the legacy for which he hopes to one day be remembered, and this effort is at its core. Zuckerberg is convinced the world needs Internet.org. The Internet won’t expand on its own, he says; in fact, the rate of growth is slowing. Most companies prioritize connecting the people who have a shot at joining the emerging middle class or who at least have the cash to foot a tiny data plan. Those businesses can’t afford to take a flier on the hardest people to reach—the very poor—in the hope that decades into the future they will transform into a viable market. Zuckerberg can. And as board chair, chief executive, and the majority vote on Facebook’s board, he can compel his board to support him. “There’s no way we can draw a plan about why we’re going to invest billions of dollars in getting mostly poor people online,” he tells me. “But at some level, we believe this is what we’re here to do, and we think it’s going to be good, and if we do it, some of that value will come back to us.”