Mark Zuckerberg Apologizes For Facebook’s Puerto Rico Virtual Reality ‘Tour’

The Facebook CEO said he meant no offense by the promotional live-stream.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized on Tuesday after his promotion of the company’s new virtual reality platform via a digital jaunt through hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico came under fire.

Some critics said the live-stream “tour” was exploitative and akin to disaster tourism.

Amid mounting backlash online, Zuckerberg posted a brief comment below his VR live-stream saying he meant no offense. The 9-minute video is still on Facebook.

“One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy,” the 33-year-old CEO said. “My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world.”

“I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery,” he added. “Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”

On Monday, Zuckerberg’s cartoon avatar toured Puerto Rico—along with Facebook’s head of social VR Rachel Franklin—to demonstrate the company’s new social app, Facebook Spaces. Puerto Rico is struggling to recover from the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 18 that lashed the island just two weeks after another catastrophic hurricane made landfall. Almost 84% of the island remains without electricity and 37% have no access to drinkable water.

Zuckerberg’s comments in the promotional live-stream also drew fire. After surveying some of the flood damage, he said: “one of the things that’s really magical about VR is that you can get the feeling you’re really in a place.” At one point in the video, Zuckerberg and Franklin’s avatars high-five with flooded Puerto Rican homes in the background.

While the live-stream was hit with criticism, Facebook has earned plaudits for its donations to the recovery efforts. The company gave $ 1.5 million to support relief work being done by the World Food Program and Net Hope, a consortium representing dozens of nonprofits and tech companies. Facebook also sent a “connectivity team” to supply emergency telecommunications support after the hurricane knocked out most of the island’s communications.

Tech

Google Closer to Using Balloons for Telecom in Puerto Rico

Last Friday, engineers on Google parent Alphabet’s internet-by-balloon Project Loon tweeted that they hoped to bring emergency connectivity to Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria left more than 90 percent of the island without cellphone coverage.

Just seven days later, the Federal Communications Commission Friday gave the company a green light to fly 30 balloons over Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands for up to six months.

If all goes to plan, Alphabet’s balloons will soon help replace the thousands of cellphone towers knocked down by hurricane-strength winds. The balloons would provide voice and data service through local carriers to users’ phones.

The details of those arrangements aren’t complete. But in its application to the FCC, Alphabet included letters and emails from eight wireless carriers in Puerto Rico, in which they consented for Loon to use their frequencies for disaster relief and to restore limited communications. Two of those agreements were dated Friday.

Alphabet has previously deployed Loon to provide emergency phone service, in Peru following flooding there earlier this year. In Peru, Alphabet had already been working closely with a local wireless network, Telefonica, to coordinate spectrum use and prepare handsets to work with its balloons.

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In Puerto Rico, “things are a little more complicated because we’re starting from scratch,” an Alphabet spokesperson says. “Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network—the balloons can’t do it alone.”

Project Loon was born in Alphabet’s moonshot X division, with the aim of serving the half of the world’s population that is still without internet access. It has launched several successful pilot projects, but has yet to be deployed commercially on a wide scale. It also is embroiled in a lawsuit with Space Data, a small company accusing Alphabet of patent infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, and breach of contract following a failed acquisition bid.

With the FCC’s special temporary license in Puerto Rico, Alphabet plans to work along the same lines as in Peru. Thirty Loon balloons will float 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) above the earth in the stratosphere, relaying communications between Alphabet’s own ground stations connected to the surviving wireless networks, and users’ handsets.

Each balloon can serve 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles), so the fleet is expected to provide service over all of Puerto Rico and potentially parts of the US Virgin Islands. Alphabet said it would consult with networks in the British Virgin Islands to minimize interference there.

Another issue is that Alphabet’s technology is still set up for Peru, so some handsets in Puerto Rico may need updates to use the balloon-connected service. Alphabet says it is working on temporary over-the-air software fixes for affected devices, which could include handsets from Apple, Samsung, and LG.

With approval in hand, Alphabet will turn to launching the balloons. Alphabet could not say when it will fly or when service would begin, but a spokesperson said, “We’re sorting through a lot of possible options now and are grateful for the support we’re getting on the ground.”

Restoring voice and data communications cannot come quickly enough for some of the affected. On Tuesday, Mother Jones reported Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló as saying, “Some people, even though we’ve documented the fact… that we’ve delivered food and water, it hasn’t gotten to some of them. Now, it could be for a whole host of reasons. One of them could be that they couldn’t hear it; the information didn’t get to them.”

CORRECTION, Oct. 7, 12:05 am: Project Loon is part of Alphabet, but is not part of Alphabet’s Google subsidiary. An earlier version of this article incorrectly called Loon a Google project.

Tech