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Mark Zuckerberg: Internet missionary, Facebook colonizer

Facebook's CEO wants to create a path to Internet access for the 5 billion people still unconnected. How nice. Of course, eventually those people will turn into a revenue stream for his company.

Hoodie activist missionary and colonizer Mark Zuckerberg.
James Martin/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg, not yet 30 but already the conquistador of 1.115 billion Facebook users, has a seemingly unquenchable imperial urge to engulf everyone on Earth via the Internet.

His accomplishments so far are impressive. Facebook, the 9-year-old company he co-founded and now leads as CEO, has more than 5,000 employees and a market cap of about $93 billion. In June, those billion-plus Facebook members collectively spent more than 20 billion minutes each day engaging on the social network. His personal net worth is around $16 billion.

Few figures in history have led such an enormous and successful conquest in such a short time and at such a young age. But Zuckerberg is clearly not satisfied with his accomplishments. His next mission -- alongside the continuing one of building a service that people love -- is to colonize the 5 billion people on the planet who are not yet on the Internet.

Zuckerberg is not tackling his next conquest alone. To meet the ambitious goal, he is spearheading internet.org -- joined by Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera Software, Qualcomm, and Samsung -- to remove obstacles to Internet access for the two-thirds of the world's population that isn't online.

"I think there are some things in life that if you believe that it's such a big problem, you just stick your neck out and try to do it," Zuckerberg said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday. "A lot of people think it's going to be really challenging to connect 5 billion people, too. It is, but I think it's one of the big problems of my generation."

The motives of Zuckerberg and his partners are not purely altruistic. The goals of internet.org fully align with Facebook's need to acquire more members in developing countries, as growth in the US and Europe has slowed. Facebook has a good start with Facebook for Every Phone, a version of the social network for feature phones that has more than 100 million users, in countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, India and Brazil.

Facebook has reached a saturation point in the U.S. and is looking to Africa, Asia and South America for growth. Facebook

But the 29-year-old Zuckerberg suggests that he didn't start internet.org to make money. "If we were just wanted to focus on making money, the first billion people that we have connected have way more money than the next 5 or 6 billion people combined," Zuckerberg said during the CNN interview, dressed in his trademark hoodie. "It's not fair, but it's the way that it is. We just believe that everyone deserves to be connected and on the Internet."

"They're going to use it to decide what kind of government they want, get access to health care for the first time ever, connect with family hundreds of miles away that they haven't seen in decades," he added. "Getting access to the Internet is a really big deal, and I think we really are going to be able to do it."

Facebook, on average, generated $4.32 per user in the U.S. and Canada and $0.63 for the rest of the world in Q2 2013. Facebook

So, Zuckerberg wants to do the right thing and create a path to Internet access and apps that is more data efficient. What he's not saying is that eventually those 5 billion new users will turn into a revenue stream. Lowering the cost of connectivity and data consumption doesn't mean lowering the cost of more finely targeted ads in the Facebook news feed.

Zuckerberg hasn't been afraid to stick out his neck into political issues. He has weighed in on immigration reform, founding FWD.us to advocate for changes in the US immigration system. He isn't just concerned with hiring engineers who lack US work visas. He says he wants to help the 11 million undocumented people in the US whose lives "we can improve and make the country stronger."

"I can't really tell anyone how to legislate," Zuckerberg told CNN. "Everyone understands this stuff way better than I do. My goal in this is to just try to help support folks who care deeply about getting this done on both sides and hopefully we can make a difference."

Zuckerberg may not be telling lawmakers how to make laws, but his celebrity, wealth, and beliefs are influencing the political debate in the nation's capital as well as Silicon Valley. He reportedly met with Sen. Marco Rubio, who is embroiled in crafting immigration reform legislation, at Facebook's headquarters on Wednesday, and in the past hosted a fundraiser for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In 2010, Zuckerberg pledged $100 million of his own money to help troubled schools in Newark. Facebook spent $3.85 million on lobbying efforts in 2012 and $3.5 million for the first half of 2013.

Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shake hands as they meet at the Gorki residence outside Moscow, on October 1, 2012. AFP/Getty Images

In October 2012, Zuckerberg met with Russia's prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to discuss their mutual interest in tech innovation and perhaps Facebook's presence in the region. VKontakte, the social networking king of Russia, claims 210 million registered users, which is about 10 times the size of Facebook in the country. Russia, as well as China, will be difficult for Facebook to crack, but Zuckerberg will sacrifice the hoodie and don the suit and tie to fit the occasion and his agenda.

"We have always focused on building something great over the long term," Zuckerberg has often said. He realizes that to build an enduring legacy, or dynasty, takes more than technology and has surrounded himself with savvy operators who have straddled technology and public policy, such as COO Sharyl Sandberg and communications chief Elliot Schrage.

Who knows, one day his political awareness or activism might overwhelm his need to hold the rudder at Facebook. Instead of racing yachts, fixing the Washington Post, perfecting the smartphone or optimizing mobile ads on social networks, Zuckerberg could try running a real country.