First Person

On the world wide web, whose world is it?

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Students get computer training at AJA in Bamako, Mali. Photo by Nick Rabinowitz/Oxfam America
Students get computer training at AJA in Bamako, Mali. Photo by Nick Rabinowitz/Oxfam America

Just as we thought we were bridging the divide between us and them, it breaks open again.
The New York Times ran a story the other day about the costs web companies face as they peddle their products—Facebook, YouTube—in developing countries. The ads featured on those sites just don’t produce results, said the story. Profits are impossibly tiny.

But in a world where half the population of 6.8 billion lives on less than $2 a day, should that come as any surprise to web entrepreneurs? Most people don’t have the luxury to consume anything but the basics. Laser hair removal and “cute and comfy” shoes—both now hawked on Facebook—don’t meet that standard.

Still, that “news” provoked a burst of pique from the chief executive of Veoh, a San Diego-based site that shares video. “I believe in free, open communications,” Dmitry Shapiro told the New York Times.  “But these people are so hungry for this content. They sit and they watch and watch and watch. The problem is they are eating up bandwidth, and it’s very difficult to derive revenue from it.” The paper reported that last year Veoh decided to block people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe from accessing its service because of the high cost of providing it to them and the small chance the company had to make money off them.

According to the story, about 1.6 billion people now have access to the Internet and there were dreams among business adventurers that the web could do what its name says: thread the world together into one vibrant community. That, of course, didn’t take into account the other 1.6 billion people on our planet who don’t have electricity.

But there’s no harm in dreaming. Good things can come from lofty ideas. If “free, open communications” are worth believing in, as Veoh’s head honcho says, then there’s got to be a way to make that happen—without penalizing the poor.

If we truly are a global community—and I think we are–maybe web companies need to come up with a business model that would allow them to subsidize communications in poorer parts of the world. And what if they asked us if we’d like to help? We might balk at a company that wanted to charge us for those free and open communications we are now addicted to, but would we drop a penny in a pot with each tweet we sent if we knew it was going to give someone else that same vital access?


Twitter, the latest communications fad out there, says it’s still developing its business model. Maybe it will lead the way with a plan that can include everybody and bridge the divide for good. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+