Facebook’s Free Basics is an African dictator’s dream
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s surprise visit to Kenya and Nigeria in September saw him eat ugali fish with his hands and crash a Nollywood music video shoot in between whirlwind tours of innovation hubs and tech incubators.
“Hey Africa,” he seemed to say. “I get you. Facebook gets you.”
Zuckerberg’s lighting public relations blitz contrasted sharply with Facebook’s under-the-radar expansion in Africa, which is built around a no-frills internet app called Free Basics. India’s government rejected the same app, which provides access to a low-data version of Facebook and a limited number of pre-selected websites, on the grounds that it amounted to a two-tiered internet system, one for the rich and one for the poor. But Facebook continues to roll it out quietly in Africa — so quietly, in fact, that many of hundreds of millions of people who now have access to the app in 23 different African countries don’t even know they do.
On the surface, Free Basics seems like the answer to many interconnected prayers. It’s a cheap, easy way to get millions of people online at a time when the internet is not only a daily necessity but increasingly thought of as a human right. The app piggybacks on the rapid adoption of mobile phones in Africa and is made available for free through partnerships with local mobile telecom providers. Those who sign up for a Facebook account through Free Basics are then able to log on to a pared-down version of the internet on their phones.
But there’s a dark side to Free Basics that has the potential to do more harm than good — a side that suggests that Zuckerberg doesn’t get Africa after all. The app is essentially a cheap version of the internet, a fact that by itself implies that some people aren’t good enough to merit the whole thing. Even worse, it’s a version of the internet that gives Facebook — and by extension the corporations and governments that partner with Facebook — total control over what its users can access.
Per the Free Basics website, any company that meets certain technical and efficiency requirements can develop a website for the platform. This sounds very democratic in theory, but in practice it means that users get only the parts of the internet that some interested party has worked with Facebook to include.
There are many individuals and groups in the developing world with information to share, but not many of them can afford the time and energy to develop a website for the platform, and those that can will almost always be trying to sell something. In that way, Free Basics promises to undermine the public information function that the internet is supposed to serve. In many African countries, traditional media has been co-opted by the state, so the internet does more to amplify critical voices than any other platform — blogs and other online platforms have become extremely important sources of perspective and analysis in Kenya, for instance. Such voices will likely be muted on a space like Free Basics.
Even if they did, there remains a significant risk of censorship. Facebook monitors its user content closely and retains the power to restrict access based on its own standards of use. In September, the company shut down the most popular Ethiopian page on the site, Mereja, claiming that it caused people to “like or engage with it unintentionally in a misleading way.” But administrators of the website argued that their page was shut down because of their extensive coverage of the ongoing protests in the Amhara and Oromia regions — coverage that the Ethiopian government has worked so hard to mute that it briefly switched off the internet for the whole country.
The risk of censorship is amplified by the fact that many of the mobile providers partnering with Facebook on Free Basics are state-owned or partially state-owned. Kenyan mobile giant Safaricom, for instance, is 35 percent government-owned. Even those partners that are private companies are vulnerable to pressure from the government. In 2008, for instance, Airtel was one of several private mobile providers in Kenya that complied with government requests to hand over data on over 1,000 users accused of instigating violence after the election.
i have been posting on free basics and similar for facebook in africa for years..its a trick..and this article explains some reasons why..
“Facebook continues to roll it out quietly in Africa — so quietly, in fact, that many of hundreds of millions of people who now have access to the app in 23 different African countries don’t even know they do.”
“in practice it means that users get only the parts of the internet that some interested party has worked with Facebook to include.”
“The risk of censorship is amplified by the fact that many of the mobile providers partnering with Facebook on Free Basics are state-owned or partially state-owned.”