OPINION: Internet privacy should trump growth

August 23, 2013 From The Christian Science Monitor
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Facebook and its friends say they will mount the latest effort to connect the rest of the world to the Internet.

Right now about two-thirds of the global population – some 5 billion people – doesn’t have access to the Web. The social media giant – which has 1.15 billion customers already – knows there are billions more out there who would sign up if only they could get online.

That’s a good goal, but it shouldn’t be their top priority.

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The percentage of people with Internet access worldwide is already growing by about 9 percent each year. But that pace is too slow for Facebook and its partners in the new Internet.org endeavor, which includes mostly companies that produce mobile phone handsets.

Internet.org will try to speed up adoption by offering less-expensive devices to access the Internet and developing more-efficient applications that require less data to operate. (Notably missing from Internet.org are other iconic Internet companies such as Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Apple.)

Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg is even floating the idea that Internet connectivity should be considered a human right, on the same list as freedom of speech or a fair trial.

There’s no doubt that better communication boosts commerce. Farmers and small-business people in remote African villages already are using basic mobile phones (voice and simple texts only), even without Internet connections, to greatly enhance their enterprises. Full Internet connectivity via smart phones would serve them even better.

But let’s not go overboard. Internet connectivity would be a great improvement, but it ranks behind adequate food, clean water, and decent shelter – or safety from war and other forms of violence. If Facebook really wants to help the world, it could contribute directly to solving those problems.

Former Microsoft founder-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates seemed to make that point in responding to a different effort to spread the Internet. Called Project Loon, the Google-backed scheme involves floating balloons that broadcast Internet signals high over remote regions. If you’re a poor person with an illness who needs aid, Mr. Gates says, you might look up and see one of the balloons, but “I’m not sure how it’ll help you.”

This week may not have been the most opportune time to promote the benefits of Internet connectivity. The Internet issue on Americans’ minds is their privacy.

Facebook and other Internet giants should first be looking at improving the privacy and security they provide to their current customers. This week Mr. Zuckerberg suffered the embarrassment of having a Palestinian programmer hack into his own Facebook page. The programmer did not have a malicious intent; he only wanted to prove that anyone’s Facebook account is vulnerable to hackers.

And there’s more bad news for Facebook: A recent study adds to a body of existing research suggesting that the more people use Facebook, the less satisfied they are about their lives, including becoming depressed. The reverse was true when the subjects of the study made “real world” social contacts, which made them feel better about themselves.

The Wall Street Journal fanned the flames of the National Security Agency controversy this week when it reported that the NSA has the capacity to spy on 75 percent of domestic U.S. Internet traffic, all in the name of rooting out foreign terrorist activity.

Facebook and friends might want to place more effort on protecting the privacy of their current customers before they rush too quickly around the world looking for more of them.

–The Christian Science Monitor’s Editorial Board

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