Facebook loves to talk about the virtues of bringing Internet connectivity to people who don’t yet have access to the wonderful series of tubes and servers on which modern society is built. It’s less willing to talk about how it plans to make the creation of drone-powered networks a meaningful business decision instead of a grand experiment at which it will throw cash until the problem is solved or it’s squeezed as much blood as it can from this metaphorical stone.
That changed today when Pryte, the Helsinki-based startup Facebook recently acquired for an undisclosed sum, explained its reasoning for selling to the social network turned drone-maker. Among the usual malarkey about working with Facebook’s “great team” and furthering some goal or another, Pryte’s team explained that it joined Facebook because of its “mission to connect the world by partnering with operators to bring people online in a profitable way.”
It’s no surprise that Facebook plans to turn a profit on its army of Internet-giving drones. It’s a company, not a charity, and everything it does must have a noticeable effect on its bottom line. But knowing that Pryte joined the company specifically because it wants to create a profitable network when the initiative has thus far been represented as an idealistic attempt to bring the wonders of the Internet to everyone brings the experiment’s true priorities into focus.
Pryte’s service might also show how Facebook plans to monetize that network. The company was developing technologies that allowed consumers to buy “passes” to specific applications instead of paying for a monthly data package. If Facebook plans to release a similar tool, it would effectively become the troll under the Internet’s bridge, shaking down any company that wants to share in the wealth purportedly waiting for the taking in these emerging countries.
Wouldn’t that be an egregious affront to the same ideas that led to the modern Internet in the first place? Of course. But would it also allow Facebook to make money by charging startups for access to a new market in addition to the systematic erosion of that market’s privacy? You betcha. Given the slipping facade of altruism that Pryte’s announcement exposes, would it really be a surprise if Facebook tried to establish an Internet that it can control and, obviously, profit on? No, it wouldn’t.
While the Pryte acquisition might just be an acquihire, or its technologies might be repurposed for something besides the degradation of the Internet’s ideals, it would be foolish to think that Facebook won’t attempt to make a profit from its “idealistic” efforts. And we thought its attempts to monetize the personal data from more than 1 billion people and spread the Internet around the world with flying death machines (aka “drones”) was bad.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]