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Inside Amazon's, Facebook's and Google's self-serving 'philanthropy'

Mike Elgan | Aug. 29, 2016
Tech giants don't want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than they do.

Technology companies tend to couch their products not as businesses for profit, but as gifts to humanity.

The HBO comedy Silicon Valley so thoroughly mocked this impulse that I heard companies in the valley ordered their spokespeople to stop using the phrase "making the world a better place."

For the biggest tech giants, faux philanthropy masks an obvious customer acquisition strategy.

Making the world a more literate place

Amazon says a billion people in the world have no access to books. That's why the company pledged this week to donate more Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets and Kindle eBooks to developing countries in an effort to make the world a better place by expanding readership and promoting literacy.

Amazon is collaborating with a nonprofit company called Worldreader, which has already engaged with visitors to Kenya's 61 public libraries.

The Kenya project demonstrates how the economics work in Amazon's favor. Most costs were borne by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Amazon donated enough Kindle Paperwhite eBook readers to supply 61 libraries, plus eBooks, which are free or cheap. That modest donation enabled some 500,000 future eBook customers to be exposed to the Amazon and Kindle brands, and the proprietary Kindle format instead of alternative formats.

What's interesting about Amazon's partnership with Worldreader is that the nonprofit has been spreading literacy through eBook readers for six years. Worldreader is "platform agnostic" and started out by promoting primarily open eBook formats.

Ideally, Worldreader helps educate the world's children, who can grow up to be literate adults and buy their own books. Amazon's donations make sure that millions of these new readers get used to Kindles and the Kindle format.

The customer-acquisition-as-good-works approach is right out of the Facebook and Google playbook.

Making the world a more connected place

Most people in the world do not have Internet access.

Facebook wants to make India a better place by bringing free Wi-Fi to Indian train stations and a few villages.

The chairman of India's RailTel told the Economic Times newspaper that Facebook wants to install Wi-Fi at a large number of stations, plus drive data services to Indians living within a six-mile radius from those stations. RailTel is a telecom with the primary mission of building and running IT for India's railroad system.

Google last year announced the installation of Wi-Fi hotspots at Indian stations. Already, 1.5 million people are now using free Google Wi-Fi at 19 stations.

It turns out that, while Google is working on covering 400 of the biggest stations in India with Wi-Fi, Facebook wants to cover smaller stations and nearby communities.

The question is why? These two Silicon Valley giants make billions on advertising in the world's wealthiest markets. Why work so hard going after users so poor or remote?


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