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Bill Gates's barbed comments pop Google's broadband balloons

'When you're dying of malaria ... I’m not sure how it'll help you'

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Charity mogul Bill Gates couldn't give a flying clippy about Google's broadband balloon PR puffery.

The tech titan reserved some barbed words for Google when asked by BusinessWeek what he thought of the Mountain View Chocolate Factory's "loon" attempt to bring internet to developing countries via floating balloons.

"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," Gates observed. "When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there's no website that relieves that."

Gates believes that problems with human health are more fundamental than Google's plan to give the poor access to lolcats, ad-backed Gmail, and grainy YouTube videos of sneezing pandas.

"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."

Larry Brilliant used to run Google's philanthropy arm, Google.org, which launched with much ambition in the mid-2000s, and ploughed a modest amount of cash into endeavors such as making renewable energy cheaper than coal before ebbing into irrelevance years later. Brilliant left in 2009 to head up eBay-magnate Jeff Skoll's "Urgent Threats Fund".

Now, Google.org has three main projects: technology for crisis response which helps people map, find, and alert people during natural disasters, Google Flu and Dengue trends which crunches search data to guess at disease activity around the world, and Google for Nonprofits, which gives organizations free or substantially reduced access to Google's products such as apps, SketchUp, and Google Earth.

Though noble in part, these schemes are not the same as Gates' campaign to eradicate polio and then, possibly, malaria. But this may be because Gates has taken his money and distanced himself from day-to-day activities at Microsoft, allowing him to run the charity without being conflicted by business goals. Google, on the other hand, has a corporate belief that more internet access equates to a better life for people – a belief that, funnily enough, rather neatly lines up with the fact that getting more people online is the best way for Google's multitude of ad-backed services to grab more cash.

"Certainly I'm a huge believer in the digital revolution," Gates said. "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."

And what about the other great boondoggle indulged in by tech titans – spaceflight? "In terms of improving the state of humanity," Gates said, "I don't see the direct connection. I guess it's fun, because you shoot rockets up in the air. But its not an area that I'll be putting money into." ®

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