Free Internet and Digital Colonialism

“Over 4 billion people will go without internet access this year.” That headline from Engadget makes the Internet sound as vital as clean drinking water that 783 million people go without, or adequate sanitation, that 2.5 billion are missing (UN). In 2015 Google briefly became the biggest company in the world, and with less than half the world’s population online it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Silicon Valley companies are racing to get the rest connected. Free Basics is Facebook’s attempt and Google has its own Project Loon (“cos the idea is so cray-zee, lol, look at our doodle not our ties to private military contractors“).

The idea behind Free Basics is to allow people with a smartphone to get a Facebook account and then access internet services that Facebook approves of for free. Sounds great? No. Letting Facebook decide what does and does not constitute appropriate content is on one hand it is a form of digital colonialism and on the other it subverts net neutrality.

So what you say. Don’t you know there are people dying right now? We don’t have time to get into post-colonial politics here, but remember Sykes-Picot? Ah Western exceptionalism, it’ll be different this time…

For all the talk of freedom and changing the world the bottom line for these companies is that projects are investments. They want a return. This return will be slow but by getting there first, whoever it is, will be anchoring themselves as crucial parts of the infrastructure in developing nations. Places that lack internet access have the chance to implement projects in new and exciting ways. Ways that do not lend themselves so readily to mass analysis and data collection.

The battle between the state and the board came to a head in Egypt recently. Free Basics was blocked by the Egyptian government as its encryption prevented the government from spying on their population; using Gamma International tools no doubt. The Egyptian government used the classic “you need a license to use that” excuse just like the Moroccan government did earlier this year.

Facebook gets to analyse what the next five billion are doing, but the state does not. That’s the bargain. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s your weekly reminder as to why this is bad:

The goal of a Silicon Valley giant like Google is to own a digital copy of everything that makes you who you are and everything that makes the world what it is. If you can simulate people, you can predict and manipulate their behaviour. If you can simulate both people and the world, you can—to the degree afforded you by the fidelity of your simulation—predict and control the future. I don’t have to spell out to you why that is hugely valuable. – Aral Balkan, The Camera Panopticon