Magazine article African Business

Concerns Mount over 'Zero-Rated' Internet Services: Free Internet Services on Offer from Big Corporations Are Attractive, but Do They Threaten the Basic Principle of the Internet-Net Neutrality?

Magazine article African Business

Concerns Mount over 'Zero-Rated' Internet Services: Free Internet Services on Offer from Big Corporations Are Attractive, but Do They Threaten the Basic Principle of the Internet-Net Neutrality?

Article excerpt

Africa's rapidly growing number of smartphone users, now forecast to exceed 360m by 2025, is helping create a more connected continent, with high-profile internet companies now looking to reach this burgeoning population through so-called 'zero-rated' services.

Major corporations, namely Facebook, Twitter and Google, have given Africans access to stripped-down versions of their popular platforms, in conjunction with major, pan-African mobile operators including Safaricom, Vodacom, MTN and Airtel.

These technology giants have agreed to waive data charges for smartphone users, as long as they do not download data from the wider internet. Facebook pioneered the widespread 'zero-rating' of internet services with the launch of Facebook Zero in 2010 and internet.org in 2013, which gives customers of a select number of mobile operators free access to the social networking service, as well as some other websites.

Wikipedia soon followed suit with their Wikipedia Zero initiative in 2012, with the aim of improving access to free information, especially in developing countries. Google also launched their own scheme, called Google Free Zone, in partnership with Airtel in Nigeria and Safaricom in Kenya. Google's programme offers free access to the Google Search, Gmail and Google+ services.

There are clear benefits to 'zero-rated' services being offered to Africans that don't have sufficient income to pay commercial rates.

These initiatives provide access to free health, education and economic information for some of the poorest people in Africa.

A website called SmartBusiness, which helps South Africans learn how to start and run a business, is included in internet.org. Other websites on healthcare topics are also available for free through Facebook's programme, giving vital health advice to Africans who have few other medical options.

Win-win?

Proponents of 'zero-rated' service offerings assert that both internet corporations and individuals in developing countries will gain from the provision of 'zero-rated' internet access solutions. The companies will gain new users and advertising revenue, while Africans will come away with much-needed free access to widely used internet sites.

One of the concerns raised by critics of 'zero-rated' internet access is the negative impact it could have on entrepreneurial efforts on the continent. Mike Jensen of the Association for Progressive Communications, a network committed to securing and defending internet access and rights, says that "the potential for telecom companies to become gatekeepers of content, and violate the open-internet end-to-end principle which has been responsible for the growth of the internet" is a major worry. "If an African 'Facebook' was to start in this environment it would never get off the ground," adds Jensen.

A survey commissioned by US-based website Quartz earlier this year, which sought to discover information about Facebook and internet usage in Nigeria, highlighted prominent issues that have arisen as a result of Facebook's internet domination in Africa. The limited survey saw 65% of Nigerian respondents agreeing with the statement 'Facebook is the internet', compared to only 5% of those in the US.

"The formative experiences of new internet users may have long-term influences on their behaviour online," according to Jeremy Malcolm, Senior Global Policy Analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. …

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