Facebook has signed up almost half the countries in Africa – a combined population of 635 million – to its free internet service in a controversial move to corner the market in one of the world’s biggest mobile data growth regions.
Facebook’s co-founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg, has made it clear that he wants to connect the whole world to the internet, describing access as a basic human right. His Free Basics initiative, in which mobile users are able to access the site free of data charges, is available in 42 countries, more than half of them in Africa.
But digital campaigners and internet freedom advocates argue that Facebook’s expansion is a thinly veiled marketing ploy that could end up undermining, rather than enhancing, mass efforts to get millions more people connected.
“Even if people are hungry, we shouldn’t be giving them half a loaf,” says Gbenga Sesan, whose organisation Paradigm Initiative Nigeria helps young people living in poverty get online.
“It’s difficult for me to argue against free internet,” he says. But he added that it is problematic to give people only part access to the internet, especially if they believe what they have is full access.
Breaking down the barriers
According to the mobile industry trade body GSMA, there will be as many as 700m smartphones in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. But a handset alone may not get you online, explains GSMA’s head of mobile, Yasmina McCarty.
A person might not have enough money for data, or the government might not have installed broadband cables in the area where they live, she says. Or the internet that is available might be in English, and therefore not useful to all. Or, McCarty adds, the person might not have been taught IT at school and would not know how to use the technology.
Free Basics offers a solution to the affordability issue, but three remaining barriers – infrastructure, content and education – need to be “attacked” to get the next billion online, says McCarty.
Facebook is exploring the infrastructure obstacle, testing a solar-powered drone and developing a satellite, both of which would beam internet access to remote communities from the sky. But people in the industry say efforts on the ground are equally as important to help the internet take root.
When introducing a technology such as the internet, “lots of personal interaction needs to take place … explaining how it works and busting myths”, says Alix Murphy from WorldRemit, a mobile money transfer company.
It is not the first time Facebook has faced challenges to its initiative. In India, Free Basics was effectively banned after a groundswell of support for net neutrality – a principle affirming that what you look at, who you talk to and what you read is ultimately determined by you, not a business.
Timothy Karr from the Save the Internet campaign does not doubt Zuckerberg’s “genuine zeal to connect the world” but says we should not ignore his motivation to “dominate the global internet landscape”.
“Facebook is not the internet, and limiting it doesn’t give people the agency, political power or control,” says Karr.
But Gustav Praekelt, whose foundation has helped Facebook provide health, educational and other information on the Free Basics platform since it launched, argues that everyone else is moving too slowly: in a perfect world access to information would be a human right but currently “there’s a vacuum and Facebook are plugging it”.
Nigeria was the most recent country to launch 80 pre-selected websites on Free Basics with Airtel Africa, the country’s second largest mobile provider. Zuckerberg said Facebook was offering Nigerians, including 90 million people who are currently offline, the opportunity to access news, health information and services for free.
However, Gbenga Sesan says the offer is only appealing because the government “shirked its responsibilities” by failing to invest in infrastructure. He would rather see a state focus on building connectivity, arguing that this would engender competition that in turn would drive down the cost for the poorest citizens.
Freemium to premium?
In a competitive emerging market, giving away data for free may not seem like an obvious business choice, but Facebook has sold it to mobile operators on the basis that customers will eventually buy data.
This freemium to premium model is also problematic, says Gbenga Sesan. “As soon as you are around the table you become a marketing opportunity,” he says, adding that there is a perception that internet rights campaigners are not supposed to ask questions about Free Basics “because it’s ‘for good’”.
Facebook did not reply to requests to respond to these specific criticisms of their approach, but after the fallout in India Zuckerberg wrote an opinion piece for the Times of India denying that Free Basics was about maintaining Facebook’s commercial interests.
“If people lose access to free basic services, they will simply lose access to the opportunities offered by the internet today,” he said, adding that the platform fully respected the principles of net neutrality.
For Praekelt, the more fundamental benefit is that there are millions of people across the developing world who cannot currently access life-saving services and so, he says, Free Basics is a flawed attempt in the absence of anything else to ensure those people are no longer deprived.
Facebook has yet to release official data on how the initiative has been received across the continent, but when the Alliance for Affordable Internet looked at how eight countries, including three in Africa, were using such zero-rated services including Free Basics they discovered only one in 10 connections came from someone who had never used the internet before.
“The application is used as a stop-gap measure,” says Nanjira Sambuli, a Kenyan tech expert. Most people use it to browse when they have run out of data, but switch back to the full web when they can afford it.
Sambuli recently took Kenya’s service for a spin and found it “barely functional” with “kinks and pages missing”. Kenyan internet access campaigner Ephraim Kenyanito describes the experience as an “unbalanced diet” with web pages that look like they were made in 2002.
There is also a worry, says Sambuli, that “centralised interventions” such as Free Basics could be misused and become susceptible to control and interference.
In April, Reuters revealed that Free Basics had been blocked by Egypt’s increasingly oppressive government after Facebook refused to let it snoop on users. But in Uganda, where the government has implemented two social media blackouts already this year, campaigners are concerned.
Although Zuckerberg has been outspoken on his commitment to freedom of speech “the fear is that Facebook becomes the broker between citizens and the government,” says Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, from the digital rights organisation Unwanted Witness Uganda.
As for the alternatives, initiatives such as public Wi-Fi and long-term investment in connectivity infrastructure are a far more solid proposition, says Murphy: “Companies [like Facebook] could pull out of the market whenever they like.”
She says good infrastructure coupled with “tiered, piecemeal pricing that lets you buy small chunks of airtime as and when you can afford it” is how the African economy works, and paying for the internet should follow that pattern.
Others point to initiatives including cyber cafes, where people are taught how to access what they need, or earned data provisions, where users watch an advert in return for a certain amount of free access.
The problem as Karr sees it is that Facebook could have supported any number of these without building a walled garden around the people who need it least – low-income families in the developing world.