Facebook today announced its Connectivity Lab, a new division within the company meant to solve the problem of delivering Internet access to the two-thirds of the world’s population that has yet to be connected. The lab is staffed by members of an aircraft-maker named Ascenta, former NASA employees, former employees of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and Facebook engineers.
In a video introducing the division, Facebook’s Yael Maguire says that the company is working on satellites that can offer Internet access to low population areas, while suburban areas will be served by “planes” that will hover over a small area at an altitude of around 20,000 meters.
I put “planes” in scare quotes because the aircraft Facebook intends to use isn’t the vehicle most people think of when they hear the word. It won’t have a pilot, it will be much smaller than commercial airplanes, and it will operate for months at a time without needing fuel. It’s a drone — a word that Maguire, Facebook, Internet.org, and Mark Zuckerberg have avoided in all of their videos, press releases, blog posts, and status updates about today’s announcement.
Maguire stumbles over the word “airplane” in the video announcement. Internet.org refers to Ascenta’s aircraft as “high-altitude long-endurance vehicles,” a term used to describe a certain kind of drone. Zuckerberg refers to Ascenta’s Zephyr drone as “the world’s longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft.” I’m willing to bet that the only reason there aren’t more videos or blog posts about today’s news is that Zuckerberg & Co. ran out of euphemisms for “drone.”
It isn’t hard to understand why they’re avoiding the term. Drones have become increasingly controversial in recent years, mostly due to their frequent use by governments in indiscriminate bombings and the claims from organizations like the Human Rights Watch that the United States’ drone use constitutes a war crime, a fact that I noted when I wrote about Facebook’s drone-filled ambitions earlier this month:
Now, there is nothing inherently malevolent about drones. They are simply another technology that could allow companies like Amazon to deliver packages, companies like Facebook to offer Internet connectivity, and governments like the US federal government to attack their targets.
But that doesn’t mean that these drones will be accepted by the people Facebook is hoping to “help.” They have been taught through a decade of covert warfare that drones are harbingers of death that kill innocent grandmothers, bomb wedding convoys, or kill American teenagers who were born without “a more responsible father.” Expecting them to welcome flying robots, no matter what their purpose, is naive.
I concluded my piece with a summary of what some of Facebook’s intended beneficiaries will think of the company’s drones and some well-wishes for Zuckerberg:
If it looks like a government drone, spies like a government drone, and transfers information to the same intelligence agencies as a government drone, chances are it will be viewed with the same fear as a government drone.
Good luck, Zuck.
Now it seems that Facebook also recognizes that announcing its own personal drone program might not endear it in the hearts of all the people it’s trying to connect to the Internet and subsequently convince to sign up for Facebook for the purpose of selling their personal information to advertisers. That leaves us with this game of Euphemism Bingo, where Facebook avoids referring to its drones as drones while everyone else wonders what they’re supposed to call an unmanned aircraft that hovers above the clouds for months at a time.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]