BY PETER WANYONYI
Last month, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg “dropped by Africa” – as the western media put it – and was reported to have visited various software development and technology training institutions, in addition to the made-for-media appearances at lunch joints and highly publicised jogs with “locals” that were actually his bodyguards who, being Black, blended into the African public environment seamlessly. But the jogs and the fish lunches at Mama Oliech Restaurant were not the real reason Zuckerberg was in Africa – neither were the start-up hubs and similar tech hotspots. Zuckerberg was in Africa – focusing on Nigeria and Kenya – to smooth the way for a Facebook service called “Free Basics”.
Free Basics is a service that involves a partnership between Facebook and various telecom companies, and which ostensibly provides access to the Internet for free. Make that “selected parts of the Internet” – because Free Basics does not really provide free access to the Internet. It provides free access to a handful of selected websites – the BBC news website, the Facebook website, and local websites offering health, education, communication, sports, and jobs information. To help achieve this, Facebook has signed up several telecom companies to partner with, but even this is not enough for its ambitions – and so Facebook is partnering with various satellite companies to beam free “Internet” to Africa. Only that those who use it will be limited to the few selected websites that Facebook determines should be available to them. And that is where the problem is.
Facebook is not telling people upfront that they will receive only a tiny number of websites via its free “Internet”. This little detail is left for the people to discover when they sign up to use Free Basics. This is made worse by the patchy record of African governments in the provision of telecommunications across the continent – the little they have been doing will quietly be abandoned in the incorrect assumption that Facebook is providing “free Internet”, when nothing of the sort is happening.
The biggest barriers to getting Africans online are the costs of smartphones, the lack of telecoms infrastructure in most African countries, the absence of relevant local content for African Internet users, and the lack of technology education to prepare Africans to not only consume but to also generate Internet content and applications.
Smartphones are finally becoming affordable, after various organisations – including telecom operators – banded together to champion the manufacture of fairly cheap phones such as the Tecno brands so popular in West and East Africa. Telecoms infrastructure inadequacy is a more difficult hurdle to clear. Telecom companies in Africa focus their investments in the areas where there’s the most money to be made, which invariably is the urban centres on the Continent. Urbanites in Africa already have electricity and fixed-line telecoms connections, and the additional mobile telephone connections simply make them more data-rich while the rest of the Continent – the rural, off-the-grid portions – are starved of digital accessibility and content. And infrastructure is not limited to telecoms: lack of electricity hampers the efforts of many Africans to get online.
In fact, it can be argued that lack of electricity is a bigger problem for Africans than poor telecoms connectivity is, at the moment. Poor training and an overall lack of well-structured technical courses for young people have combined to make it difficult or even impossible for Africans to generate and consume local digital content, and the few efforts to incubate start-ups here and there in African capital cities do not mitigate this in any way.
And this is why Facebook’s “free basics” is so disappointing and so misleading. Africans do not want “selective second-class Internet”, which is what Facebook are offering. We want to have Internet connections on the same terms as the rest of the world, under the basic principle of user-driven choices and net neutrality – that is, what a user looks at on the Internet, who a user talks to via the Internet, and what a user reads on the Internet is ultimately determined by that user – not by Facebook, not by the telecom provider, not by the government. In fact, what Facebook is touting is little more than a new digital colonialism, one in which the Great White Lord from the West comes to Africa and tells Africans, “I have decided what you NEED, and I’m going to give it to you.”
All this is, of course, not for free. A common Internet aphorism states that “when you get something for free on the Internet, you are not the customer – you are the commodity.” Facebook needs more and more people on its platform, signed up to Facebook and seeing its advertisements – which is how it makes its money. The hundreds of millions of Africans looking to get online are obviously a massive revenue opportunity for Facebook, and ensnaring them with an offering of a few preselected websites is an easy and virtually free way for Facebook to make yet more money.
In addition to this, it should be noted that the service is not even free for good. Facebook uses Free Basics as a so-called “gateway” app, one that gives access to a few very basic websites but then entices users into paying for connectivity to any other websites they want to access through the Free Basics app. It is instructive that Facebook is not offering its Free Basics service in the West: with connectivity saturated and most Westerners already online, there simply aren’t as many money-making activities in the West as there are in Africa and India – where Free Basics was banned for attempting to segregate data offerings to users.
The author is an ICT consultant based in New Zealand.