A couple of days ago I was randomly surfing on the internet and came across 2 articles regarding net neutrality. It was an article from The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, in which they discussed how Facebook is using its powers in developing countries by serving free internet access to a (by them decided) limited amount of sites/apps. Having this set up it triggered a backfire to Facebook as how they are operating is against net-neutrality through their initiative. On Internet.org you can read more about the initiative but basically their mission is:
“The internet is essential to growing the knowledge we have and sharing it with each other. And for many of us, it’s a huge part of our everyday lives. But most of the world does not have access to the internet. Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative with the goal of bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn‘t have them.
Imagine the difference an accurate weather report could make for a farmer planting crops, or the power of an encyclopedia for a child without textbooks. Now, imagine what they could contribute when the world can hear their voices. The more we connect, the better it gets ” – facebook/internet.org
At a first glance, yes, I tended to agree with the arguments and reasoned that a big and large corporation is sweeping through developing countries, making their content available for “free” to have more potential advertisement income which enriches them even more. I tended to agree that the internet must be open and equal for everyone and that there shouldn’t be a system in which some content is highlighted/accessible over other for extra money. Sure, a paywall, such as The Wall Street Journal, is fine as the accessibility to the site as such is at normal speed and no extra costs involved and it’s up to you to pay for the content or not.
One of the arguments is valid: If there is an open access to the internet then no company, government nor other initiative should decide what is available and what is not.
After agreeing/concluding on this I had a flashback to the year 2008. Then I had my intern in Angola, Africa. Statistically, Angola isn’t the poorest country in the world. They have oil. Lots of it. Yet, that wealth is concentrated in the hands of only a couple of people. Angola is also a country that had their liberation struggle till 1975 and after the country was free it emerged in a civil war that lasted till 2002. The school I was working with was in the middle of the country and in the line of fire where the fighting was the heaviest.
Everything you imagine you have they generally don’t have or very limited access to. No house, no proper roof, no tab, no water, no irrigation, no schools, no supermarkets, no roads, no hospitals, no stove, no proper clothes, no computers, no electricity, no windows, no infrastructure, no functioning government, no land ownership, no property ownership, no insurance, and no bank account. All of that simply isn’t there for the majority of the people. Yet, so many ‘millennials’ and younger, do have cell phones.
A cell phone isn’t just for status but also to rapidly exchange information. But there is a catch! How is it possible to gain access to that information as all the traffic needs a 3G or a 4G network? That’s a lot of data in a short time and that means they have to keep on topping up their pre-paid cards. Pre-paid as a subscription needs a bank account and a formal address which they don’t have. For them it is impossible to spend large amounts of money to technology as 70% of their income goes to food.
These boys I’ve met on the streets, one of them proudly holding his cellphone. In 2008 there were no smartphones but by now they are available, also there. For them a whole new world of connectivity, sharing information, learning about issues at hand would have opened up and for them information is crucial.
These boys, well not only them, but the people who live there in general, are very smart, very good at surviving in conditions you and I wouldn’t want to be in. They are very hard-working when they see their work leading to something better. Unfortunately, these people are by far not in a context they ever can afford access to all that is so common for us.
So, I changed my conclusion. Yes, no company should decide what is available and what is not, but, it has to be seen in the right context for people it is about. Just because they are poor, shouldn’t they have access to the internet? Yes, the poor is an extra market for Internet.org, but, it is also opening access to information for them, these boys, and all other potential users.
To me it is a win-win situation and Facebook is the first company who has this initiative on a large scale. It is a start, the initiative is growing, more apps and sites become available and resources only are growing, meaning a lesser net-neutrality problem as more is available. The initiative is not the end and I think that we should, for their benefit, surrender to principles in our context and let them have access to internet.
About the Author
This work has been submitted by Daniel Arendzen. Thanks a lot to Daniel for this great contribution and for sharing your angle on this. If you enjoyed this article, you should also check out his blog and check him out on Twitter. (Re)publication in full or in parts after agreement with Daniel Arendzen.
Photo credit: Daniel Arendzen (1. Tank beside the main road, 2. Shot village house, 3. Boys with ‘status’ on the street) / Wilhan José Gomes (cover shot)