Bangalore: Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook Inc. who turned 29 in May this year, has found another mission in life. He wants the next five billion people to be connected on the Internet, most of whom will be on Facebook too. In a phone interview from Palo Alto, California, his first conversation with an Indian publication, Zuckerberg spoke about Internet.org, the challenges it faces and the things he learnt from building Facebook. Edited excerpts:
You have added another life mission by announcing Internet.org. How much of it is about getting the world connected and helping Facebook itself?
You know, we have been on this mission to make the world more open, connected and for a while we have had this valiant cry at the company where we are really excited at connecting a billion people. And when we got close to doing that we realized that our real goal wasn’t just connecting a billion people but really try and connect the whole world. But there are big obstacles in doing that, which is that a vast majority of people in the world don’t have access to the Internet.
So we started analysing this problem, figuring out how we could fix this and actually create a backbone for many things, including access to information, access to information about healthcare, education, jobs, and just so many good things. And it became clear that this is a solvable problem but no company or government can do it all by themselves. We have to work together across companies and different industries. And that’s how Internet.org got started, by having conversations with many other companies about this common goal to have Internet access available to everyone in the world.
Some of the sceptics of this Internet-for-all approach, including Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, say that there are far greater challenges facing people, especially in the developing world.
So I am not the first to acknowledge that there are more basic needs than the Internet. Someone who does not have food or water, for them those are more basic things. But for people who have those things, and have a phone, they may not have an access to the Internet. Can we create a way for them to connect with the global economy?
One of the things I think is really unfair about the world today is that the richest 500 million people have way more money than the next six billion people combined. I think that in the next few decades, I hope that would change. One of the ways of achieving this is by giving everybody access to the Internet so all have access to same information, a lot of the same opportunities, the same ability to share what they think and speak freely. So, I think once you get past very basic needs, access to the Internet is really important for development of people and countries.
What role do you see countries like India play in this project? There are challenges of government regulations, insufficient infrastructure.
India is a really big opportunity if we can achieve something like this. My understanding is that there are only a 100 million people, may be a bit more, who have broadband Internet access out of the population of a billion or more. And a way more people have phones but a lot of them have no access to the Internet on their phones. We want to work with the mobile operators there and people who are selling phones like Nokia, Samsung, who are partners of the Internet.org. And in order to make the economics work, these people who could not afford Internet access before will now be going to have some Internet access.
But it’s not like we are going to do it all by ourselves, we have to work with all these companies in order to make this work.
In a country like India, local languages also play a role.
Yeah, I think so. We have taken a pretty different approach towards transliterating our services in different languages. Most companies are trying to transliterate their services themselves. Instead, we built a tool where people who use Facebook can transliterate each string of text into whatever language they want, and other people can vote on which transliteration is the best. So the community is actually transliterating themselves, and by doing this we have been able to transliterate into way more languages than most services are offered in.
So I think that language is definitely a huge barrier, you can’t use a computing device if you don’t understand the languages it interfaces in. It’s been a big focus for us and we have taken a pretty innovative approach in solving that.
With 82 million monthly active Facebook users in India and a comparatively small Internet subscriber base, we have a long road ahead.
What else can India do?
Governments should promote infrastructure-sharing and network efficiency through measures such as licensing of white space spectrum, reallocation of excess spectrum. These reforms are necessary to promote universal access, which is a stated goal of the government of India.
There are some unanswered questions in your vision document for the Internet.org. Who is going to build that infrastructure, who funds it? Have you thought through some of these aspects?
Yeah, it’s not just one company, it’s not even just one kind of company. So, mobile operators will build out a lot of it. And then there are going to be companies like Qualcomm, for example, which is another of the founders of Internet.org. You know right now there is inefficiency where a cell tower broadcasting signal does not go through walls very well, you may be in a building and the packets of data are sent multiple times, all wasteful. Companies like Qualcomm are building technology that strengthens the networks. So, that’s obviously a big deal.
Mobile phone manufacturers like Nokia and Samsung are building hardware that’s cheap enough so everyone can afford it, that’s also a part of it.
Facebook develops hardware and it helps design hardware that we can put in carrier data centres that cache data better and even that can be much more efficient for people. We founded the Open Compute project, under which we work with a lot of other companies in the industry to create reference designs for servers, network switches, and all of other pieces that make other global network infrastructures that run the Internet a lot more efficient. So there are lot of things we do, not just one company and it’s not just in one country. I mean if you take the aggregate from across all these companies, a lot of progress is being made. It’s possible that over the next five or 10 years we can have 100 times more efficient networks than we have now.
You say this Internet.org project cannot be done by one company, and rightly so. But Google is still not part of this alliance. Have you reached out to them?
Well, we have talked to them and I think that they are thinking about it.
You know, as a company, Facebook has always been more oriented towards partnerships. There are some companies that just want to do lot of stuff themselves and our view on this is that no one company can solve this problem by themselves. We are going to have to work with other folks to do that and there will be some innovation we can do by ourselves.
What have you learnt from the first billion users, and how do you build Facebook that lasts for decades?
As more and more people use Facebook, I think what we learn is that we are getting into folks who are less familiar with technology. Earlier, users were people in college who grew up with computers and used them all the time, were really adept with technology. Now we are getting into people who may have got the Internet recently or got their first computer, first smart phone.
What you learn is basically you are trying to make it simpler and simpler and it’s hard to take things for granted. The things that we take for granted, a lot of people are not even familiar with. For example, we sent our product managers around the world to talk to people who are not on the Internet yet and to serve them Facebook and get their reaction. One of the things I found fascinating was a lot of folks who had not used the Internet before never knew how fast it worked because they had never used it. For them, it’s a foreign concept.
Basically, the farther out you get in terms of connecting the world, the simpler and simpler you have to make your service in order to make it work for all these people.
How would you visualise Facebook in the next 10, 20, 30 years? What is your vision?
Well, there are a few parts to what we are trying to do. The mission is to make this world more open and connected. In terms of connected, we want to go from one billion connected to the next five billion connected. I don’t know how long that will take, and it might be a lot harder than the first billion, but that’s what we are focused on. That’s what Internet.org is all about.
We also focus on making it all a lot more open so people share more things. When you have opinions with friends, other people you respect and you can see them, what they are up to through News Feed, pictures or Graph Search that we are working on... I think that will create a much better world. You have much more information about what’s going on in the community and you learn more and more things from the people you trust.
That’s important in terms of mapping out all information in the world that’s going to be relevant to you—a big focus for us.
We are also focused on making the economy work better. We built our business on ad products. When we are building product for businesses, we are not thinking only about making money, we are thinking about how can we help aspiring entrepreneurs create their companies, create jobs, how can we help e-commerce companies sell more.
We are really proud of the contribution we make there. That’s what we are focused on over 5-10 years.
A lot of bright engineers and professionals in India and other countries are looking at the US immigration developments and are wondering if it’s becoming protectionist. What would you tell them?
Well, it’s a complicated problem and there are lots of different parts of it. There are folks who are part of tech companies, who are really worried if they can bring talented engineers to their companies, that’s a big issue. There’s also a lot of focus on those have come to the country and have overstayed their visas, and there are 11 million undocumented folks in the US. We need to find a fair way of doing something with these people.
So, it’s a really complicated and a very charged issue, and there are people on all sides of the spectrum here. I think there is lot of will in trying to get something done. What we are trying to do with Fwd.us is to support people who are trying really hard to get things done in the (US) Congress.
For the people who are trying hard, we are there to support them and hopefully they can get it (comprehensive immigration reform) done.
What would you tell Indian start-ups and entrepreneurs who are looking at companies such as yours and trying to build firms?
I think it’s what you want to do to stay on in the world. And chances are that if there’s something you really want to build and others want it too, that’s always a good place to start.