Bill Gates: Google’s Internet Balloons Won’t Help Kids Dying of Malaria

    August 8, 2013
    Josh Wolford

Back in June Google announced Project Loon, an initiative to bring the internet to remote areas via giant balloons that float around stratospheric winds and beam access down to people on the ground. Google knows that it’s an ambitious program. They’ve called it a “moonshot” and even the name suggests that it’s a rather loony idea.

Now, Bill Gates is questioning whether Google’s internet balloons can really help those in impoverished areas fight the real battles they face.

In an extensive interview with Bloomberg, Gates was asked whether bringing internet access to underdeveloped areas can help to solve problems. This was his pointed response:

“When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that. Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-health-care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria.”

I mean, Gates has a point here. There’s no immediate benefit to kids dying of malaria that can be afforded by a giant, floating balloon that gives internet access. But it’s always been Google’s assertion that expanding internet access to underprivileged areas can lead to a ton of secondary benefits. Sure, accessing a website can’t cure disease – but it can provide information on how one would go about preventing or treating disease. Plus, institutions that help to deal with the real problems faced by the poor can be aided immensely by reliable internet access.

And in response to Gates’ comments, you have to ask the question: are all charitable institutions made equal? Shouldn’t Google focus on providing free internet access to poor areas – since that’s something that they would presumably be quite qualified to do? Can’t Google’s Project Loon provide an equal, but different benefit to the same people Gates is trying to help with his numerous programs to eradicate disease?

Gates also had something to say on Google’s other charitable initiatives – mainly their philanthropic arm

“Google started out saying they were going to do a broad set of things. They hired Larry Brilliant, and they got fantastic publicity. And then they shut it all down. Now they’re just doing their core thing. Fine. But the actors who just do their core thing are not going to uplift the poor.”

I wouldn’t call this “shots fired” or anything. It’s obviously just a difference in principle, and in methods for helping the underprivileged. But it does come off as dismissive. What do you think?