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LATIN AMERICA

Mark Zuckerberg launches free internet initiative in Colombia

Facebook founder teams up with Santos government to offer access for country’s poor

Zuckerberg and Juan Manuel Santos in Bogotá on Wednesday.
Zuckerberg and Juan Manuel Santos in Bogotá on Wednesday. REUTERS

Cellphone users with only basic services in Colombia are to gain free access to various kinds of online content thanks to a partnership between the government and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg has chosen to offer the project to Colombia as part of his campaign to provide greater internet access to the world’s poorest. The project is led by Internet.org, the organization he created in 2013 with other global technology leaders such as Nokia.

On Wednesday, Zuckerberg joined Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a talk in Bogotá to officially present the project. During the event, which was broadcast on state TV, Santos said 98 percent of the country’s municipalities have fiber optic internet connections. The new challenge, he continued, was for the government to take advantage of these connections to develop applications that would help solve the issues affecting those most in need.

Colombia is the first country in the region and the fourth in the world – after Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya – to use Internet.org’s app. The cellphone platform is available on Android devices to customers of service provider Tigo, which has more than eight million subscribers in Colombia, and offers free access to 14 websites.

The beneficiaries of the program will have free access to Facebook, Messenger and Wikipedia

Facebook will shoulder the cost and the Colombian government will provide access to content from two state institutions on the topics of education and agriculture. The other platforms available – Accuweather, Girl Effect, UN Women, MAMA, Unicef, Mitula, Su Dinero, 24 Symbols, Tamberos, 1doc3 – will offer content related to health, climate, gender discrimination, financial training, and jobs.

The beneficiaries of the program will also have free access to Facebook, Messenger and Wikipedia. Project organizers hope that other service providers operating in Colombia will join the scheme and that the amount of content available will grow little by little. “By giving people these basic tools for free we are creating a level playing field in the country. Technology should not only be for the rich who can pay, but for everyone,” said Zuckerberg.

Santos said the alliance was formed after a meeting with President Barack Obama in December 2013 in which they agreed to create an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) working group to bring together the private sectors in both countries and focus on improving quality of life for the poor. ICT Minister Diego Molano has said Internet.org will help meet the challenge of reaching the most vulnerable through applications designed for social impact.

During the conversation between Zuckerberg and Santos, which lasted a little over half an hour, the president focused on asking the young businessman questions about how technology can help reduce poverty, improve quality of education, create jobs and, especially, promote reconciliation – an issue that will be key if the government signs a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels.

Colombia is the first country in the region and the fourth in the world to use the app

Zuckerberg highlighted the work that has been done to connect different parts of the country but insisted that it was just the first step in a process. “If you want people to participate and lead the knowledge economy and create applications, a requirement is for everyone to be on the internet. You have to have access to this tool first of all,” he told the crowd in an auditorium at the presidential residence. He also reminded the audience that only one third of the world currently has access to the internet.

Regarding the peace process and the need to raise awareness of the benefits that would follow the end of the armed conflict in Colombia – something Santos has said his administration needs to work on – Zuckerberg pointed out that a large number of people hang out on social media platforms nowadays. “Giving communication tools to people is important in creating a much stronger social network for peace,” he added.

Colombia, a country of 45 million people, has nearly 10 million internet subscribers and more than 22 million have a Facebook account, Santos said, before going on to ask the Facebook creator how he could gain more followers on the platform. “You have authentic content, and that’s what people want,” Zuckerberg replied.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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