Facebook has recently found itself in hot water after a whistle-blower came out to talk about how Cambridge Analytica, a firm associated with both Uhuru Kenyatta’s and Donald Trump’s elections, mined the data of about 50 million users of the platform and used it to target them with often divisive political messaging. This is far greater than the initial estimate made in 2017 of 30 million accounts. This cannot be considered a breach of data, as they did it using the tools that Facebook gives third party developers access to, but a breach of users’ trust on Facebook’s part. They did not even bother to tell their users about this breach until March 2018 when the whistle-blower came out.
Hot on the heels of this information, it was recently revealed that Facebook, now known for being irresponsible with user data, has been storing extremely detailed logs of the date, time, duration and recipient of Android users’ calls when they have Messenger or Facebook Lite installed on their devices. It is worth noting that most Kenyans with smartphones are on Android. However, our concerns about Facebook should be even greater.
I recall clearly when Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, came on an “Africa tour” in 2016 and stopped by Nairobi to “learn about mobile money.” Before that, he had been to Lagos to meet with local businesses and developers to understand how Facebook “better support tech development and entrepreneurship across Africa. While he tried to portray his visit as altruistic, it was anything but.
Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has invested in Andela to the tune of USD 24 million, and, Facebook’s Free Basics Initiative (under their Internet.org arm) is active in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Angola, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, among others. Free Basics is a platform provided by Facebook in association with various telecom operators in different countries (in Kenya it’s Airtel), where certain basic websites are available free of cost. They hope that “by introducing people to the benefits of the internet through these websites, we hope to bring more people online and help improve their lives.”
According to their website, it provides people with access to useful services on their mobile phones in markets where internet access may be less affordable. The websites are available for free without data charges, and include content on things like news, employment, health, education and local information. They go on to say: “the internet is essential to growing the knowledge we have and sharing it with each other. And for many of us, it’s a huge part of our everyday lives. But most of the world does not have access to the internet. Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative with the goal of bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn‘t have them.”
Free Basics, however, is not all roses. It only allows users to access a very small section of the internet, and that portion is under the control of a corporation that chooses what services will be accessible for free. Since when can corporations be trusted with so much power? It offers unequal and biased access to the internet. The people at Facebook have to think your website is a “useful” basic, using standards that are unknown to the rest of us, and then allow free access to it on certain carriers. The selectiveness of the whole thing is amazing. Facebook partners with select Internet service providers to provide selective access to select websites. And then, they call it Free Basics, yet the very implication of the word basics is access to all.
This goes against the principle of net neutrality, which is the belief that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. Through this service, Facebook becomes a gatekeeper: all web traffic generated on Internet.org goes through their servers, which spells trouble because it creates room for surveillance and privacy violations, since so much data is being concentrated in such few services.
Spying governments and hackers are now able to target very specific websites to get your data. This is made even worse by the fact that Facebook does not allow encryption on Internet.org (because the websites need to be light and load fast), yet this is one good way to protect users from online attacks. This is every hacker’s dream. To make matters worse, people worldwide confuse Facebook with the internet, while many others do not know that Facebook itself is on the internet. Isn’t it problematic if they become the main gatekeeper for the majority?
Free Basics also lacks transparency. What are the policies regarding user data? What happens when governments request for data access? What are the partnership terms with the telcos they are partnering with? How are core services for the service selected? What about the ones that are rejected? Why are they rejected? Who exactly covers the costs incurred by the telcos for providing this service? Are they being paid more or less than what they usually get paid by consumers for data? And most importantly, why is Facebook creating a walled garden? What about companies that are unable to, for some reason, meet whatever vague requirements Facebook has for being on the platform? Are they dead on arrival?
Perhaps the plan is for Facebook to increase its dominance in the market, get customers hooked on this free stuff, price others out of the market, and do whatever it damn well pleases after that. But how well is this plan working? Not too well. Buzzfeed did a piece on who is actually using Free Basics, and as you can imagine, the results will shock you. Most of the mobile operators in question that responded to their questions, and not Facebook, were actually the ones subsidizing the data because they believe it is a good customer acquisition and retention strategy. However, most of the people using Free Basics were not first time internet users. Many of them already have data plans and just use Free Basics to reduce their costs.
If Facebook really cared about providing access to the underserved, why not use its massive influence to urge telcos to offer data plans with low data caps to marginalized communities? Or, why not pay for this themselves? Then, everyone can have equal access to the internet? This fight has now been brought to Africa’s doorstep. Facebook lost this fight in India, and we must not let them win here. If a country with over 1.2 billion people can resist this giant corporation with a unified voice, so can African countries.
In India, they had a rallying cry against Free Basics: that it was poor internet for poor people. This is essentially what it is. They marched on the streets, protested online, and they targeted companies that had agreed to partner with Facebook, rating them poorly, until one by one, they dropped out of the programme. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India put out a letter to Facebook that ended with important questions, and the way Facebook handled this was terrible, and resulted in Internet.org being banned in India. They went on with a ham fisted approach, taking out billboards, newspaper ads, and sending millions of SMSs. They even asked people to call their telcos, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Zuckerberg learned from this very public humiliation, and this no doubt was behind his charm offensive in Africa. We have to be smart about this; we too must say no. We are at an important crossroads. The next billion can go online like we do now, and enjoy unfettered, nondiscriminatory access to the internet, with all the knowledge hosted there and the tools available for them to express freely. Or, they can get a second class experience. Poor internet for poor people, with limited access to the web as dictated by big blue.
It’s up to us to choose.