Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, announced the launch of Internet.org Wednesday, a project aimed at bringing Internet access to the 5 billion people around the world who can't afford it. The project is the latest initiative led by global-communications giants to combat market saturation in the developed world by introducing the Internet to remote and underprivileged communities.
"The goal of Internet.org is to make Internet access available to the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected and to bring the same opportunities to everyone that the connected third of the world has today," Zuckerberg said.
"There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy," he added. "Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges."
The project will develop lower-cost, higher-quality smartphones and deploy Internet access in underserved communities, while reducing the amount of data required to surf the Web. Other founding partners include Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia and Opera.
The announcement follows similar initiatives by Silicon Valley executives attempting to harness the power of technology to connect people around the world. The majority of social-media users live in Western countries; the developing world offers uncharted territory.
Facebook and other tech giants, of course, have a significant financial stake in expanding in the developing world. With tech companies reaching market saturation in the United States, countries in Latin America and Africa, for example, offer a big opportunity to attract a steady stream of new users, whose data can be mined by advertisers.
Google announced in June that it had launched a small network of balloons over the Southern Hemisphere in an experiment that it hopes could bring reliable Internet access to the world's most remote regions.
That pilot program, Project Loon, took off from New Zealand's South Island using solar-powered, high-altitude balloons that ride the wind about 12.5 miles above the ground, twice as high as commercial airplanes, Google said.
Connecting more people globally has important implications for how people organize their lives, said Patrick Meier, co-founder of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative's program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. Social media has become a lifeline to people affected by earthquakes, floods and conflicts in the developing world, he added.
"The more people are connected on social media, the more people get on the map," Meier told Al Jazeera.
In places where the state is limited, Meier added, the Internet becomes a way to make up for services the government fails to provide. "When the state is not there, when you talk about limited statehood, you get a void," he said.
When Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2010, Meier established a disaster-relief network by mapping online responses from people live-tweeting from Port-au-Prince to alert the humanitarian community. The technique helped locate people who were hurt or stuck under rubble.
Meier emphasized that social media helps people to "better self-organize." Connecting through social media becomes a coping strategy and "facilitates collective actions locally without having to depend on traditional humanitarian organizations," he said.
Lisa De Bode contributed to this report. With Al Jazeera and Reuters