Facebook partners with UN to bring Internet access to refugee camps

The social-networking giant has begun lobbying the United Nations, saying Internet access is a fundamental human right.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
3 min read

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke at the UN on Saturday about Internet connectivity. The UN's webcast

Facebook is working with the United Nations to enable refugees from the Syrian civil war to access the Internet so they can more easily communicate while seeking resettlement.

In a speech to the UN on Saturday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Internet connections in refugee camps will help refugees get better support from the aid community and maintain links to family and loved ones. Access to the Web is key to increasing quality of life, Zuckerberg added, saying it not only helps people communicate but can also help lift them from poverty.

"The Internet is more than just a network of machines, it is the key driver of social and economic progress in our time," said Zuckerberg, who pledged that Facebook would continue its efforts in impoverished and developing countries. "A like or a post won't stop a tank or a bullet, but when people are connected, we have the chance to build a common global community with a shared understanding."

Mark Zuckerberg's pledge marks the latest move by Facebook, Google and other tech giants to expand connectivity across the globe. Kim Kulish/Corbis

Zuckerberg's pledge marks the latest move by Facebook, Google and other tech giants to expand connectivity across the globe. If they succeed, billions more people could use their services, helping to achieve Facebook's stated goal of connecting everyone and Google's of organizing the world's information.

Bringing Internet access to refugee camps is just one aspect of the effort. Facebook has also been building satellites and aircraft that can beam Internet connections to remote villages and towns. Google is engaged in a similar project, using high-altitude balloons.

Critics of these programs say the companies stand to benefit from expanding pools of people using their services, which primarily make money from advertising. Others complain the businesses are also trying to create de facto monopolies on Internet access.

Facebook, for example, has encountered a backlash to Internet.org, a nonprofit it leads. The group works with governments and telecommunications companies to offer free limited Internet access in developing countries. Often this comes in the form of access to several apps and websites, with opportunities for users to pay for more.

After Internet.org launched in India in February, several Internet companies withdrew from the effort, saying that it threatened Net neutrality, or the idea that all sites and services should be equally accessible. Zuckerberg has defended Internet.org, and will be holding a town hall-style discussion with Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, this Sunday.

Zuckerberg has said that even basic Internet access can change lives. He's relayed stories of farmers who use the Internet for the first time to check crop prices and of families who are better able to care for themselves with access to health information. At the UN, he cited research saying that for every 10 people who gain access to the internet, one person is lifted out of poverty.

In his speech, Zuckerberg said 140 million new jobs can be created by expanding Internet access, helping 160 million struggling people. "Access to the Internet is a fundamental challenge of our time," he said. "This is an opportunity available to all nations today."

In separate remarks at the UN on Saturday, Zuckerberg said Facebook has partnered with global advocacy organization One in a global call to action for universal Net access by the year 2020.