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MENLO PARK, Calif. – Mark Zuckerberg aims to make Internet access available to everyone on Earth. On Tuesday, Aug. 20, the Facebook founder and CEO announced the launch of internet.org, a global partnership with the goal of connecting “the next 5 billion people.”

Zuckerberg called this “one of the greatest challenges of our generation,” in a memo also dated Aug. 20 and titled, “Is Connectivity a Human Right?”

“The Internet not only connects us to our friends, families and communities, but it is also the foundation of the global knowledge economy…” Zuckerberg wrote in the memo. “The unfair economic reality is that those already on Facebook have way more money than the rest of the world combined, so it may not actually be profitable for us to serve the next few billion people for a very long time, if ever. But we believe everyone deserves to be connected.”

Today, 2.7 billion people – just over one-third of the world’s population – have access to the Internet. Internet adoption is growing by less than 9 percent annually.

The founding members of Internet.org – Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung – plan to develop joint projects, share knowledge, and mobilize industry and governments to bring the world online. To make this happen in the developing world, internet.org will focus on making access affordable, using data more efficiently and helping businesses drive access.

Nokia president and CEO Stephen Elop called universal Internet access, “the next great industrial revolution.”

A number of commentaries in mainstream media have said the move – which is at first glance charitable – is clearly profit-driven for the partners.

“The problem with Internet.org isn’t that its members stand to reap enormous benefits if another five billion people are connected to the Internet,” wrote Matt Buchanan for The New Yorker blog on Aug. 23. “That’s fine; it’s hardly the first humanitarian project to benefit its benefactors. But the organization appears to be shirking some of the hardest work – building the infrastructure needed to connect people to the Web – hoping that, if it makes that work easier and more profitable, someone else might do it.”

Zuckerberg’s rhetoric would have us believe something different. Before the Internet and the knowledge economy, he wrote in the memo, the world economy was primarily industrial and resource-based.

“For example, if you own an oil field, then I can’t also own that same oil field. This incentivizes those with resources to hoard rather than share them. But a knowledge economy is different and encourages worldwide prosperity… In fact, the more things we all know, the better ideas, products and services we can all offer and the better all of our lives will be.”

Zuckerberg said the plan is “a rough vision for what we believe is possible,” noting that the partners are prepared to respond to new developments, as well as unpredicted challenges.

Internet.org launched Aug. 20 and provides an overview of the mission and goals, as well as a full list of the partners. In the coming weeks, it will feature interviews with technology leaders and experts, along with news on its activities.