Internet.org – How Facebook is Making a Rookie Mistake in a World they don’t Understand

I belong to a group of people that for years have been advocating against building poor products for poor people. The biggest mistake anyone can do, I have always argued, is to treat poor people as some sort of homogeneous, monolithic group, looking at their lack of means as a defining identity.

It’s stupid. And it is really bad for business.

(cue in the gazillions of award winning products you’ve seen in all those TED talks that are presently decomposing in warehouses all over the “developing world”).

I have always been amazed on how common this mistake is among organizations that really should know better. Market-dominating consumer goods companies that exploit uncannily precise insights on other markets have blundered at the bottom of the pyramid. Non-profits who are all about reaching poor people do this mistake every day.

It gets even worse when the product in question is not meant to, *cough, cough*, make a profit. Products designed to do good are often worse offenders.

And then there is the worst of the lot – products that are hiding their profit-making purpose behind a veneer of do-goodery.

Enter Internet.org.

A lot has been written over the last few days about Facebook’s blunder in India. And about what a bad idea it is to try and circumvent #NetNeutrality to push this idea. All of those arguments are important and you should add your voice here.

Meanwhile let’s have a closer look at some dodgy assumption behind internet.org.

  1. Poor people don’t know better. I don’t think it would even cross anyone’s mind at facebook to do the same on, say, the internet.org.uk domain. If it would, their PR people would smell the danger from miles away. And in any case Network Operators would probably laugh them out of the boardroom. This has nothing to do with the fact that there would probably be a group of consumers who would be enthusiastic about sharing pictures of cats and puppies over a free-to-use app. But somehow the assumption was that it will be different in, say, India?
  2. Internet = facebook? Owning the internet.org domain doesn’t make you the internet. If you are facebook, no-one will fault you for trying to promote facebook. But you are not the internet. Not even to poor people.
  3. People who own smartphones can’t afford to go online. Smartphone prices are very high, everywhere. In the markets that facebook knows well, they are often subsidized by the operators (“OMG, a free iPhone with a 1 year contract!”). But elsewhere that simply is not the case. Even if they would, they would only be able to subsidize devices for the 2%-3% who use post-paid plans. And those people most definitely do not need charity to go online. Everyone else uses pre-paid and they pay for their device out of the pocket. In cash. That means that if someone paid $100-$300 for a smartphone in cash, they could probably afford the $3/ month for the data they need to “check their facebook”.

To be honest, poking holes at internet.org is too easy. But how about something more constructive?

Is there anything that can be done on these markets that would make sense?

I believe there is. And here is where we should start: across emerging markets between 60%-95% of SIM cards are used with feature phones (more stats here). That means that the majority of people couldn’t make use of internet.org, even if it would be a good idea otherwise.

That means we should build something that works on feature phones. At Triggerise, for example, we make it a point that every single application works on the cheapest, most beat up phone on the market. You shouldn’t even need credit. We also work through aggregators (mobile connectivity brokers), which means that our services are agnostic in terms of operator, provider, network or phone make. basically, if you have a phone with a SIM inside, you are good to go.

And here is an example of an application we are currently developing in cooperation with PSI India: A “Pregnancy Companion” – a package of personalized services and products for pregnant women, all delivered via SMS. Services include ante-natal consultations as well as the birth itself, and products include stuff like folic acid and vitamins. The pregnant woman subscribes by SMS and these products and services are basically SMS codes that arrive at the right time, with instructions, and can be redeemed at any participating clinic or shop in her community.

Throughout this journey, the pregnant woman also collects reward points, called Tiko, for every milestone reached. This is a powerful behavioral driver. She can redeem Tikos at shops or clinics to pay for services or purchase food. She can even use them for some pampering at the local beauty salon – she may be poor but she is an independent woman that knows what she needs and when to treat herself.

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