Facebook lures Africa with free internet - but what is the hidden cost?

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Some see Mark Zuckerberg's plan to wire up the continent as a philanthropic gesture, others suspect a cynical marketing ploy. 

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.

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.


Digital colonialism?.
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.


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.


Who benefits?
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.

The alternatives? 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 could pull out of the market whenever they like.”
An etiquette guide to the African internet
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.