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Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg aims to give billions of people free internet access

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 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has partnered with tech juggernauts in an effort to provide cheap phones and free internet access to billions of people in developing countries. (Getty Images)Should internet access be a basic human right, regardless of whether or not a person can afford it? 

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seems to think so. 

 In an interview at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona this week, the social network's CEO spoke at length about his Internet.org initiative, a "global partnership with the goal of making internet access available to the next 5 billion people." 

Only about 2.7 billion people, just over one-third of the earth's population, currently has access to the internet, according to Zuckerberg -- and while 80 per cent of us live in areas with at least 2G networking capabilities, billions around the world don't have access to the technology required to get online. 

"There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy," said Zuckerberg in a post on Facebook's blog announcing the initiative last year.

"Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it." 

The "global partnership" he refers to includes such tech juggernauts as Nokia, Samsung, Qualcomm, Opera, MediaTek and Ericsson. 

It is the group's hope that by simplifying smartphone software, it can eventually provide high-quality, low-cost mobile phones to everyone on Earth. 

Under Internet.org's plan, basic data services will be free, such as search, food prices, weather reports, and, of course, Facebook.

During his interview, Zuckerberg explained that these basic services are intended to be "on ramp to the internet" -- something to show those who've never accessed the web before how valuable a tool it can be. 

So what's in it for Facebook? 

"There's no clear plan that I can say today, that this will be good for Facebook," said Zuckerberg to interviewer David Kirkpatrick, admitting that the initiative is unlikely to be profitable for quite some time. "But I can say it will be good for the world." 

As altruistic as his intentions may appear, some are skeptical about what the coalition of companies plans to do. 

In an article called "Mark Zuckerberg's push to bring internet to the poor is business dressed up as charity," The Verge's Ben Popper paints a much darker picture. 

"The group positioned itself as a charitable effort, but make no mistake," Popper writes, "this is also a sober business move that puts Facebook and its friends in the smartphone world front-and-center to court the biggest group of untapped customers left on planet Earth." 

CNet's Jennifer Van Grove wrote similarly that "the real pitch is: Carriers can hook people with free access to Facebook, then upsell them on data plans for access to the broader internet." 

Zuckerberg, for his part, has admitted the latter. 

When asked by Kirkpatrick how internet providers would benefit from the initiative, Facebook's founder used the word "upsells" to explain that users with basic services could potentially be enticed to pay more money in order to access enhanced services, such as video streaming.

It's the idea that Facebook is trying to gain a stronghold over the entire internet, however, that concerns Popper most. 

"The most important piece of this project to unpack is that Facebook wants to ensure its model of the web, in which your identity is leveraged to target advertising, is the paradigm powering internet access," he wrote. 

"In other words, if the local people are too poor to finance the build-out of internet access, Facebook is happy to pick up the slack -- in exchange for access to their identities."

What are your thoughts on the Internet.org initiative and Mark Zuckerberg's plan to bring internet access to everyone in the world? Weigh in below.

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