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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Facebook Free Basics: A Trojan gift

Facebook “Free Basics” seems to offer “free access” to the Internet for those who cannot afford it. However, the scope offered is only to Internet sites that Facebook chooses. This unfair limitation of scope, often described as a “walled garden” is detrimental to society, especially those who cannot afford open services. Thus a two tier Internet usage model will arise with unlimited access for those who can afford it, and limited access for those who cannot.

Net neutrality is the principle that digital service providers, especially those that offer access to the Internet, must enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites without prejudice to domestic laws and regulations. Facebook Free Basics contravenes this principle.

It is important that government maintains net neutrality and its own technological sovereignty by ensuring that every digital service provider offers full access to the internet and its resources. Technological sovereignty is achieved when information and communications infrastructure, processes and data are subject to the laws of the country in which they are located or pass through. Access to general internet resources by our people must not be dictated or limited by foreign company. 

Facebook and other firms are welcome to make charitable contributions to our poor and underserved in cash, or kind such as via data bundles and capacity building initiatives. This does not preclude the prerogative of Government sensors, or national security restrictions, because that is the privilege of an elected government, with checks and balances, not a foreign profit oriented company.

Data is getting cheaper in Nigeria and eventually everybody will be on the full and open internet, given time. Many of the nations that have acceded to Free Basics are poor nations with little experience of anything better, unlike Nigeria. Egypt and India have formally shut down the initiative in their jurisdictions. Furthermore, digitally progressive countries like Japan, Norway, Finland, Estonia and Netherlands have banned agendas such as Free Basics. Many experts including Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the world-wide web, have condemned Free basics.

Facebook Free Basics is bad for Nigerian entrepreneurs and national ICT oriented wealth generation and job creation initiatives because a business cannot be discovered by the expected new potential users on the internet until they advertise on Facebook. Furthermore, if Facebook is allowed then every other company will offer its own "free Basics."

Should this happen then we will then have a fractured digital nation, where its people are unable to speak, and trade, with each other because they will be on different, unconnected micro-networks. Ironically, Facebook Free Basics will prevent Nigerian businesses from emerging as future “Facebooks.” This is because our business’s will not be able to realise their full potential over fractured networks and thus setting the stage for endemic techno-colonialism and digital imperialism.

We must ensure that principles of Net neutrality are strengthened, broadened and deepened, in our best national interest and in the best interest of our people.

*Contributed by Abdul-Hakeem Ajijola, Chair, Consultancy Support Services Ltd., Abuja, Nigeria.

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