How Come Bill Gates Thinks the Poor Don’t Want Internet Access?

How It Works
Aug. 22 2013 2:07 PM

How Come Bill Gates Thinks the Poor Don’t Want Internet Access?

A customer looks on after paying to recharge his mobile phone at a roadside booth next to a camp for flood displaced peole, on Feb. 12, 2013, in the town of Xai Xai in Southern Mozambique.

Photo by Jinty Jackson/AFP/Getty Images

I love mocking Silicon Valley utopianism as much as the next guy, and highly recommend Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur’s cover story in the new issue of Foreign Policy, but a recent round of mockery of Internet-access initiatives by Google and Facebook seems both misguided and condescending toward the people the critics claim to be supporting.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

First, Bill Gates—who’s developing quite the sideline in international development punditry—dismissed Google’s plan to use balloons to deliver Internet access to remote and less developed regions in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek:


When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that. Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-health-care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria.

Over at ZDNet, tech reporter Tom Foremski cheered Gates’ statement and took aim at Mark Zuckerberg’s initiative:

A/B testing would save a lot of time and trouble if it turns out the poor would rather have a safe place to live, sanitation, schools, clean water, health clinics, electric lights, roads, or food. Not that there's a choice but in theory, if they had a choice what would they want?

I bet Internet connectivity never comes up in their social conversations. Internet connectivity is nice to have but it's only useful if you have the other basic things needed for existence. 

I’m not interested in defending these particular programs. The balloon thing seems a little far-fetched, and Zuckerberg’s faith in the positive power of connectivity is admittedly over-the-top. But Google and Facebook have proved themselves to be very good at providing people with services over the Internet. Yes, it’s self-serving for them to want to make sure more people have access to these services, but do we really want to be in a position of arguing that these companies shouldn’t make the developing world a business as well as development priority?

Furthermore, these critiques make it sound as if “the poor” are an undifferentiated mass who are concerned with little besides starving and dying of malaria. The majority of the world’s population live in developing countries. Most of them are not starving and don’t have malaria. Many of them would probably like better Internet access. 

As author Teju Cole put it in 2011, “Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn't disappear just because you're black and live in a poorer country.”

I don’t want to trivialize the problems of malnutrition or malaria, or suggest that wealthy technology executives shouldn’t devote their considerable fortunes—as Gates has—to addressing these problems. But it doesn’t seem that ridiculous for these companies to also focus on what they already know how to do.

No, expanding Internet connectivity is not a Holy Grail, and no, it will not save the world. But it could get more people on the Internet, which is also a good thing. 



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 30 2014 10:44 AM Bull---- Market America is overlooking a plentiful renewable resource: animal manure.
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal. But… What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.