Is limited access to the Internet better than no access at all? This is a question posed by John Naughton, author and professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University, in a recent Guardian diatribe against a Facebook app that offers free connectivity to developing nations. Naughton’s answer is ‘no’.
By Mark Calder
Indeed, to him, this “is a pernicious way of framing the argument,” that ought to be resisted. He would prefer to fight for increased access to the entire Internet, not just a “corporate- controlled alcove.”
But what is his practical alternative? Demands for universal connectivity are all very well for someone who can afford it, but they are fundamentally vacuous.
Over the next decade, 2 billion people will gain Internet access, many through mobile devices. But somebody must pay for the data plan by which these new users connect to the Internet. And if the users themselves cannot afford to, then a compromise with corporations may be necessary.
However, their compromise isn’t quite the prison Naughton suggests it is. In his summary he says, “When a new user in Somalia, India or Burma switches on her shiny new budget smartphone what she sees is a Facebook app which provides ‘Internet’ connectivity free, while other apps incur whatever charges are levied in the data plan agreed with the mobile operator.” But this vision of a single demoniacal institution consolidating its power at the expense of the poor is misleading.
The app is part of the ‘Internet.org’ initiative, which Naughton fails to name, and which has seven founding partners, including Samsung and Nokia. Its stated ambition is to allow ‘people to browse selected health, employment and local information websites without data charges.’ The app is currently available to Airtel customers in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, as well as Tigo customers in Colombia and Tanzania.
So the app supplies significantly broader access than Naughton implies. Amongst its free resources are Wikipedia (inarguably one of the world’s greatest knowledge databases), country-specific job searches, AccuWeather (critical for farmers) and various medical organisations. Examples of the latter include ‘Facts for Life’ and ‘MAMA’ (Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action), both of which supply essential health information to women, such as tips for handling pregnancy, childbirth, childhood illnesses, and childcare.
Another resource free on the app in Zambia, WRAPP (Women’s Rights App) ‘serves to inform Zambians of women’s rights, which legislation backs them up and steps to take if they have been violated.’ Josh Constine, reporting for TechCrunch, notes “For example, a woman could find out that she has equal rights to education, as protected by the Education Act of 2011 [Cap 1, Section 22], and can contact The National Legal Aid Clinic For Women if that right is violated.”
In the words of the former US Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, “Through Internet.org, women in Zambia will have greater access to vital information and needed services to improve their lives and the lives of their children.”
And Facebook itself isn’t quite the social ill Naughton wants it to be. Abdirashid Hashi, the Deputy Director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, praises Facebook use in Somalia in a way that is more generally applicable. The connections it fosters amongst the diaspora and its citizens will keep growing as “socially conscious, media savvy and educated Somalis often join forces to push [for] issues of common interest.”
In a recent study on media habits among Swazi youth, commissioned by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and UNESCO, the centrality of social networks is clear. It states that 42% consider social media their preferred channel for communication (versus 24% television, 22% newspaper, 12% radio). Meanwhile 69% cite social media as their favourite medium for gaining information. The study’s conclusion emphasises the potential Facebook has both as a ‘learning tool’ and a means of expressing otherwise marginalised identities.
This is all to say that Facebook is no alcove, but rather a powerful tool by which members of developing nations can create their own networks, beyond traditional media.
Furthermore, initiatives like Internet.org serve as a stepping stone towards full Internet use. As Mark Zuckerberg told the 2014 Mobile World Congress, with the example of the Filipino Network Globe: “What we’re seeing in Globe users is the number of people who are using the Internet — the data — was doubled, and Globe subscribers have grown by 25%.” The free app leads to wider online literacy. And this should surely be celebrated, not condemned.
Image by BirgerKing