Facebook began in 2004 as an online social networking service for students at Harvard University. Since then, it has grown into a global enterprise worth over $200 billion, with more than 1 billion active users. In July 2014, the company launched Internet.org, with telecom and other industry partners, in an effort to broaden access to the Web and develop more efficient and cheaper technology. In a recent e-mail conversation with AQ editors, Javier Olivan, Facebook’s vice president of growth, described how the initiative is faring in Latin America, and why greater connectivity in the region still remains a challenge.
Americas Quarterly: How will Internet.org change the lives of users in Latin America and elsewhere? Where are you seeing the biggest gaps in usage?
Javier Olivan: We’ve rolled out free basic services to more than 500 million people around the world, and the results are encouraging: Nearly 7 million people are connected who previously weren’t. Nine out of 10 people in the world live within range of a data-capable 2G or 3G network, but only a little more than a third of the world’s population accesses the Internet. This tells us that for many people, the barriers to connectivity are economic and social. Many just can’t afford data, especially those at the bottom of the pyramid—or, even if they could, many of those people don’t know why they would want the Internet.
If we can find ways to give people free access to basic services like messaging, Wikipedia, search engines, and social networks, it will allow people to experience the Internet and understand why it’s valuable for them. That’s why we launched the Internet.org app. With this app, people can browse a set of useful health, employment and local information services without data charges. By providing free basic services via the app, we hope to bring more people online and help them discover valuable services they might not have known about otherwise.
AQ: Where does Facebook see the highest growth potential for connectivity in our region?
JO: There is plenty of room for growth across Latin America. Take, for instance, the three biggest nations in the region: Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Of a combined population of 365 million people, 171 million use Facebook every month. A recent study by Internet.org found that only 46.7 percent of the people in Latin America are currently online. That means challenges to connectivity remain across the region. Our goal is to connect the world, not just to Facebook, but to the Internet [as a whole].
With Internet.org, we work with operators to make a set of free basic Internet services available that help bring down the cost of data for those who can’t afford it, and increase the awareness of how [Internet connectivity] can improve people’s lives.
In January, we took our first step toward accelerating Internet growth in Latin America by launching a set of free basic Internet services within the Internet.org app in Colombia, including the health information site 1doc3, AccuWeather, the agriculture information platform AgroNet, and Wikipedia. We did this in conjunction with President Juan Manuel Santos, his government and our partners at Tigo.
AQ: What’s the future of Facebook in the region as the Internet becomes more accessible and as the social media marketing landscape changes?
JO: We are working hard as an industry, together with our telecommunications partners, to bring connectivity to everyone in the region. We are planning to launch Internet.org in additional countries (besides Colombia). As the Internet becomes more accessible, more people will have access to information—and to the tools to grow their businesses.
For the past decade, Facebook has been adapting to people’s behavior, evolving from a desktop-based service to a mobile company. For instance, we found that in parts of Latin America, many people still rely on feature phones; so we developed a lighter version of our app to run on low-end devices. Another good example is Paraguay, where we launched a version of Facebook in Guaraní, the native language still spoken by a significant percentage of the population.
For the majority of new people coming online, Facebook is among the first experiences they will have using the Internet. This is because their friends and family are on it, and it’s easy for them to share and connect. Not only does Facebook make it easy to connect with your friends and family, but it’s increasingly being used by governments to connect with constituents.
In Colombia, as part of Internet.org, we worked with the government to make services available for free. President Santos and his Minister of Information Technology and Communications, Diego Molano, understand the value the Internet can have for the people of Colombia, and have been great partners in working to help accelerate its growth.
AQ: What are the challenges to Facebook’s reach and connectivity in the region? Do privacy or cybersecurity represent concerns? And how are Latin Americans using the service now?
JO: The real challenge is that far too many people across the region are unconnected. If people don’t have access to mobile data plans, they aren’t connecting to our service—or to any other on the Internet. We see the benefits that the Internet can bring to people through the ability to connect to friends, family and information. If the majority of the world doesn’t have access to it, we all lose.
Privacy is our number one priority. Giving people control over what they share is at the core of everything we do. We think about privacy from the time we start building a product until it goes out the door. We know that people will only trust Facebook if we do a good job of protecting their information.
People use Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, to share and express what matters to them, and also to grow their businesses. That doesn’t change across regions. Two events that took place in Latin America last year—the FIFA World Cup and the Brazilian presidential elections—were among the biggest conversations ever on Facebook.
One of the amazing things about Latin America is the speed at which Facebook is transforming people’s lives. Extroverted and social by nature, Latin Americans have embraced our site to the point that in many places, Facebook is synonymous with the Internet. It’s not by chance that Spanish was the first language supported by our platform after English, and, in just a few years, Brazil became one of the world’s largest Facebook communities, with 92 million people using our platform every month, most of them on their mobile devices. From Mexico City all the way down to Buenos Aires, we see that most of the people online are also using Facebook to share what matters to them, to get informed and to do business.
AQ: Have government restrictions on Internet access and use affected users in Latin America as they have elsewhere? How has Facebook met those challenges?
JO: The main obstacles to connectivity in Latin America are economic constraints and lack of awareness. And Internet.org addresses both, improving the lives of millions of people across the region. So far, we have taken the initiative to Colombia in conjunction with the government, and, most recently, to Guatemala. We hope other nations in Latin America will follow soon.
AQ: Social media has largely been viewed as a tool for those who are already computer literate, such as urban residents, students, young professionals, among others. How can social media reach a broader and more rural population?
JO: Today, the Internet represents a third of humanity. We think it should represent everyone. Two-thirds of the world doesn’t have access to the Internet, and growth isn’t happening fast enough. When over 4 billion people can’t access the Internet, all of us are robbed of their ideas and potential.
The Internet connects us to our friends and families and communities, but it’s also the foundation of the global knowledge economy and a way of providing basic financial services, health and education tools. When everyone can participate in the global knowledge economy, all of us will benefit from the ideas and productivity they contribute to the world.
With Internet.org, we are working with mobile operators and governments in the region to knock down the barriers to connectivity by giving people the ability to access a set of free basic services on their phones. We think that this will make people aware of the many benefits the Internet provides and help extend them to a broader population.
AQ: Peter Thiel, one of the early Facebook funders, thinks that regulation is preventing us from having real technological breakthroughs (“We wanted flying cars and we got 140 characters” is his famous phrase). Do you agree?
JO: As technology evolves, it changes people’s behavior, and challenges governments and policymakers to keep up. Societies need to constantly adapt and redefine the rules of the game. Regulation is necessary, but if it is too restrictive, it could also inhibit innovation and ultimately limit people’s chances to benefit from technological progress.
AQ: In the 1990s, we couldn’t have imagined the scope of Facebook or the other large, successful Internet companies. What will Internet companies look like 20 years from now?
JO: I’d rather think about what products will look like in the future, not the companies that build them. The products and services that will be successful are the ones that enable better ways to connect, just like many of the popular ones do today. I’m looking forward to innovations over the next 20 years that will give people new ways to share experiences and connect. We hope to be a big part of that at Facebook.