My first internet experience was through a school library PC in the 90s. I only knew of yahoo.com at the time and I was told that I could search for whatever information I wanted, including underground Hip Hop artists who wouldn't otherwise be featured on our main source of information at the time: Word Up! Magazine or The Source. This capability alone had me willing to spend a portion of profit from my Fireballs Candy business just to rent 15 minutes a day on the library PC.
Browsing through Yahoo was enough experience to get me hooked on this web of information. For most in Africa, first contact with the internet is through mobile phones and I assume as captivating, if not more, as my experience was. Accessing 3 websites of relevance is more than enough to get one hooked and wanting to surf more.
Unfortunately for Mme Xhanthi who lives off $1 a day, in an era where #dataMustFall is so serious a hashtag that it makes it all the way up to parliament, those few sites is where the road ends since she relies on zero-rated services like Free Basics by Facebook.
Do you think Mme Xhanthi would give up the little experience she gets from the free access to these few sites, in the name of a concept such as Net Neutrality? The likes of Mme Xhanthi makes up the majority of the population of South Africa. Yet, a minority privileged techie group insists on deciding for this majority not to have this limited free access because they believe everybody's internet should be served on an all or nothing plate.
This is why the likes of Joe Mucheru (Cabinet Secretary of Kenya's Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology) say
“It’s like saying someone has no food, but if someone brings them bread we are not going to allow them to have the bread because they must have a balanced diet,”
I'm all for net neutrality. In fact, I've turned away offers to get involved in projects that had a slight hint of creating islands or a compromised menu of the internet. My opening paragraphs might have you thinking I'm here to defend net non-neutrality. However, I wrote these notes in trying to understand the position of most African governments on the subject.
Africa has the highest percentage of population that is offline – almost 75% according to the ITU's “ICT Facts and Figures 2016”.
Our internet penetration rates are below 30 while all other continents are above that. Would our governments believe that we're in position to be sharing the same access philosophies with Europe, whose penetration rate is in the 80s?
Governments face a major challenge of getting information to its people. From their developmental programmes or educational campaigns to progress reports, reaching the rural or poverty stricken majority is costly and produces low results.
The quality of education in most African countries is deteriorating. Supplementing this with free access to learning platforms such as beSmart, worldreader and wikipedia can lessen the negative effects somewhat.
Besides being oversubscribed, most African families also cannot afford the costs that come with basic and tertiary education.
The above are just some points governments consider when deciding on the applicability and legality of zero-rated services. Free Basics by Facebook, for instance, provides access to free information about health, employment, starting a business and other local information on your mobile phone. Scholars4Dev gives access to a list of international scholarships.
Under Free Basics there are a number of other valuable sites that one can access freely to self-develop and fight poverty. Unless theirs is to keep its people uneducated and oppressed, it would be difficult for any African government to reject these free services.
Innovation and Competition
We often argue that not following net neutrality laws aids the monopoly of the zero-rated services over competition and stifles innovation. This is undeniable.
Let's assume that there are 10 free services that are offered via these zero-rated platforms. This means that 10 different areas of online services/solutions will experience unfair competition. Compare this to hundreds of African solutions that could sprout from people having access to information that they would not have ordinarily had.
A popular saying at startup or tech events is
“Africa doesn't need another Facebook or Twitter. We need solutions that address unique African problems.” Some-Motivational-Speaker-Turned-Tech-Guru
The number of rural and/or uniquely African challenges, we need to find solutions for, outweigh the few tech startups that could potentially experience unfair competition as a result of zero-rated services.
We've all seen Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the Internet Age. The already connected urbanites have jokingly placed internet access as more necessary than food. When governments give free meals to school children from poor communities with a preference for brandX, we don't complain about unfair competition for brandY.
If we follow Maslow, we shouldn't complain when those who can't afford it are given some form of internet. I admit this is a pathetic attempt at expanding Joe Mucheru's earlier analogy, but it feels relevant here.
Net Neutrality activists have watched in paralysis, a couple of times, as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni isolated social media traffic from the rest of the internet in his country and put this net island into darkness. The last time he did it, the confirmed government order cleared his path to a two thirds majority election victory.
It highlighted how quick and easy it is for governments to switch these islands on and off. This happened in many other African countries before and after that. Most African governments are not willing to give this power up.
There have been exceptions like Egypt who suspended Free Basics at the end of 2015 for instance. Just as our hopes were raised, Moroccans were blocked from using VoIP services a week later.
What this further highlights is that the direction of African governments' swing in terms of how they control the internet can’t be determined or generalised. Neither can this be done for developing countries in general. The world witnessed how India rejected Free Basics earlier in 2016, which prompted an emotional rant from Marc Andreessen that painted him and his team's Free Basics as fake philanthropy and new age colonization. I believe our governments are well aware of this.
The consequences of a free-to-do-as-you-like environment on the internet for governments can be disastrous in the long term. It only takes the manipulation and imagination of a loony dictator to ruin the internet experience for the already connected. After these notes, I was left sympathizing with governments whose intentions are good and face tough challenges to get their people online. Each African country needs to consider some not-so-neutral laws in the short term. Pure net neutrality is definitely essential when we're all online.