Free Basics may promise free Internet, but what about internet freedom?

Saturday November 28 2015

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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In this era of the knowledge economy, powered by Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), the significance of the Internet -- economically, socially and politically --  is unmissable.

In Kenya, the Internet has served to enhance cohesion, in fits and starts. Kenyans from various parts of the country can exchange their experiences and perspectives via online platforms.

Through the Internet, we now have multiple sources of information, and stories that may not gain mainstream media attention can find audience on social media.

The Internet has enabled e-commerce, innovation, entrepreneurship, learning and so much more. As with any good, the internet often comes the bad and the ugly - all of which calls for balanced perspectives.

One of the great policy and governance questions of today and the future is how to provide Internet to all of humanity. Approximately 3.2 billion, or 40 per cent of the world’s population is connected, but many more are yet to be plugged into this global resource.

This has driven many, both in the public and private sector, to brainstorm and propose solutions to connect the “next billion” Internet users - most of whom are in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Since the unconnected also happen to be those bearing the heaviest burden of inequalities, the idea of making Internet access free for them has gained traction.

Facebook, the most popular social media platform in the world, is at the fore of efforts to bring the Internet to the developing world.

In 2013, Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, launched Internet.org, which aims to “bring Internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn’t have them.”

At face value, this effort does sound commendable, but as is often said, the devil is in the details.

ZERO RATING

Last week, Facebook and Airtel announced they would be providing free Internet to Kenya’s rural areas. To many, this is good news. Inch closer, however, and you find one of the most contentious issues in internet governance today.

Facebook’s version of a “free Internet” is advanced via Free Basics, which offers a range of free services on the Facebook-created platform.

Initially, the initiative had pre-selected services such as news sites, sports, weather and health apps, but has since opened up the platform for anyone whose application meets the technical specifications, key among them being zero-rating. 

Zero-rating is a practice that enables mobile customers to download and upload online content without incurring data usage charges or having their usage counted against data usage limits. It is intended to minimise cost of access to the Internet, and is practiced in various forms.

The zero-rating we see at play in Kenya, for instance, consists entities like Facebook and telecommunications companies making parts of the Internet available for citizens to choose from.

TWO KINDS OF ‘FREE’

We see this in the partnership Facebook has with Airtel Kenya, and with the Unliminet package offered by the latter. It can be argued, therefore, that many more Kenyans can now access social media, but the Internet is more than social media platforms.

While it may attract more Internet users in the short term, this kind of zero-rating has been argued to be untenable in the long term, especially for local content creators and even consumers.

With Free Basics, Facebook decides which publishers and developers to allow on the platform, while reserving the right to reject them. Not to mention, it is unclear what community standards are upheld on Free Basics; for instance, how people report inappropriate content (services are not rejected on the basis of Facebook’s Community standards).

This places Facebook as a ‘gatekeeper’, something that has generated backlash in places like India.

The idea of a free Internet is compelling, but warrants scrutiny. ‘Free’ can go two ways, the no-cost-to-the-consumer approach or the freedom approach, where freedom on the Internet is upheld; freedom to choose what to consume, freedom to create, freedom to compete.

The free Internet being dangled our way is the former, and it is problematic for a couple of reasons. For one, if something is free, you are likely the commodity or product.

WHO GETS TO DECIDE

The currency for many Internet companies is data. In the absence of sound data protection policies, your consumption data can be traded by these entities for lucrative amounts.

Also, this approach skews the perception of what constitutes the Internet.  This idea of a ‘free Internet’ is also sparking debate in developed economies.

The “spirit of the Internet” is that it enables all users to connect, create, consume and correct content. It facilitates a many-to-many communication, which is considered a democratising factor, and a disruptor of traditional modes of information flow which were predominantly of a one-to-many form.

Even as we connect the next billion users, we must aspire to retain this spirit, in the infrastructure and policies adopted. While “some Internet is better than no Internet at all”, we have to be vigilant about what constitutes ‘some’, who gets to decide on the ‘some’ and why they get to decide on others’ behalf.

Twitter: @NiNanjira