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Spreading the net takes more than balloons and bombast

A flurry of initiatives aimed at connecting the billions – mainly in Africa – who still do not have access to the internet are underway. A few weeks ago, Google’s possibly aptly named Project Loon was launched. The internet giant announced it plans to raise a stratospheric flotilla of balloons that would bounce an internet connection to the remotest people, communities and countries. This week, Facebook joined in on the act by announcing a partnership with an array of technology companies with the aim of lowering the cost of mobile data to help people in developing countries connect.

These initiatives, and indeed many other similar enterprises, turn on the fact that only a third of the world’s population enjoys reliable access to the internet. This is seen as a Very Bad Thing, which it may well be. While it would be wrong to automatically dismiss any attempt to spread technology more equitably around the world, we should consider what this might actually mean for the people involved, not forgetting that the motives of Google, Facebook and co are clearly not completely altruistic.