Facebook, Africa & Net Neutrality.

Almost everybody loves Wikipedia, and while we may not all love Facebook (FB), many of us are somewhat addicted to it anyway. So, if cellular networks offer access to them free of charge, it is an offer that few would resist. But we should remember the cliche about “free” products on the internet: if there’s no charge, you are the product – your attention is sold to advertisers at a price, according to what the seller knows about you.

The debate over “zero-rating” (sponsored data) has intensified since the launch of internet.org, a project whereby FB pays networks to make a bouquet of web services (including Wikipedia and FB) available for free. It’s part of the wider debate over Net Neutrality .

Given that the stated goal of internet.org is to extend internet access to the majority of the world’s population who don’t have it, Africa becomes central to the discussion. Although there may be numerically more not-yet-connected people in Asia, they usually live more densely – often in areas where telecommunications infrastructure exists, even though only used by wealthier members of society. Thus, relatively less investment is necessary to get them online.

Simply put, most of Africa is sparsely populated, and few of the population can afford internet. Although mobile networks have grown massively – and still are doing so – they cover mostly urban areas and transport routes, where people of means concentrate. The network operators have little incentive to invest elsewhere – unless FB, albeit for its own reasons, subsidises them to do so.

People who argue (perfectly reasonably) that what internet.org will bring to the otherwise-unconnected is not the internet as the world knows it, but a curated “walled garden” must concede that the alternative, for millions, is to be deprived even of the possibility of buying a data bundle to be able to get outside of the bouquet.

An additional factor to be considered is the growing importance of the internet in humanitarian responses an area where Africa is historically disadvantaged.

My own modest proposal is that we separate the components of net neutrality – I agree with the principle that all data packets should be handled equally, but I can accept that some of them are paid for by a corporation.

However, since the first edition of this blog, news has emerged that websites or services need to satisfy “lightweight” technical criteria to feature in internet.org (in order to keep data needs low). This includes making no use of basic encryption measures. In other words FB is luring new internet users into an insecure environment where they can be spied upon and defrauded. At the very least they must be made aware of this.

As African internet governance stakeholders we must grapple with these issues.

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