Who Really Wins From Facebook’s ‘Free Internet’ Plan For Africa?

Written by Staff

By Hilary Heuler | From ZDNet

In the world’s least-developed countries, isn’t free internet, or at least a bit of it, a good thing? As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s expanding ventures in Asia and Africa demonstrate, the issue is considerably more complex than it might initially appear.

Facebook caused a storm of controversy in India when it launched its Internet.org app, offering free access to a suite of websites including Facebook’s own pared-down ‘zero rated’ service. Net neutrality advocates have been up in arms, and their arguments have gained enough traction to cause a number of Indian content providers, including the Times Group and NDTV, to step away from the initiative.

But that hasn’t stopped Facebook Zero and Internet.org from expanding into an even less developed market: Africa, where operators in a growing number of areas are offering zero-rated versions of Facebook to their users. Internet.org is currently available in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia; several others offer Facebook Zero on its own.

Writing in the Hindustan Times, Zuckerberg tried to convince India’s increasingly vocal critics that his company was on the side of net neutrality. “It’s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it,” he wrote, adding that “to give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some services for free. If you can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all.”

Getting more people online, if only on a limited number of sites, has certainly paid off for Facebook: although the causality is difficult to determine, the number of African Facebook users increased by 114 percent in the first 18 months after Facebook Zero was launched in 2010, according to internet tracker oAfrica.

Facebook’s African journey has not been as ideologically fraught as in India. Danson Njue, telecoms analyst for research firm Ovum, points out that African countries generally have little to no regulation to protect net neutrality, so zero-rated services are unlikely to face the same sorts of legal battles they have in India.

But while it might not attract as much attention, zero-rating, say net neutrality advocates, is every bit as worrying in Africa as it is in Asia. In countries with very low internet penetration rates, it could be even more so.

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