In 2016, Facebook’s grand project to ‘connect the unconnected’ was banned in India after a year-long national debate led by digital activists. What Facebook promoted as a benevolent initiative, activists decried as self-interested attempt to increase market control of the digital space. Since then, the project kept expanding globally, particularly across Africa: by the summer of 2020, at least 32 African nations had offered the service at one point in the last five years. What made this quiet expansion possible across Africa? And what does it mean for the future of civil society, democracy and the Internet on a continent increasingly connected?
Users, data and access
As part of their efforts to increase their global reach, US tech corporations have invested in a range of connectivity projects across the Global South. One of the most notorious ones is Facebook’s Free Basics initiative. Free Basics exists as both an application and website, which allows users to access some basic services, like news, weather and health information, job ads, and of course, Facebook. Free Basics does not include audio, photo and video content and is designed to work on low tech phones, which are still used in many rural areas around the world.
Significantly, users do not need to buy or use data credit to access the services. This is made possible through partnerships that Facebook established with various telecom operators in different markets. While Facebook initially presented the project as philanthropy targeting unconnected rural communities, it follows a gateway drug commercial model: this “free” sample of connectivity will spur greater data consumption, and in the process grow Facebook’s user base while cementing the corporation’s position as the gateway to the Internet for mobile users across the Global South. A confidential internal document from April 2015 (figure 1) shows how Facebook kept track of the project, with a list of 25 priority countries and government support, including 9 in Africa.
Figure 1 – Facebook’s internal Free Basics (FBS) tracking document, April 2015
As the initiative was being rolled out in India in 2015, a group of local activists forcefully opposed it (Prasad, 2018). They argued that Facebook acted as a gatekeeper of the internet by pre-selecting services available on Free Basics without transparency and with detrimental effects on smaller services and local start-ups. In a nutshell, they decried Free Basics and similar promotional offers (known as “zero-rating” offers) as violations of net neutrality, i.e., the principle that internet service providers should treat all internet traffic equally. Throughout 2015, a highly publicized national debate over net neutrality unfolded. It concluded in early 2016 with the Indian regulator banning zero-rating, including Free Basics. In sum, the widespread backlash against Free Basics contributed to raising public awareness of complex digital policy issues, and eventually led to regulatory action. In the process, it played a role in revealing the economic incentives behind Facebook’s so-called philanthropic initiative, and it testified of the growing power that digitally savvy activists can have in influencing public discourse and policy.
Facebook’s quiet expansion in Africa
The ban was widely perceived as a massive victory for digital rights activists in India and beyond. For Facebook, it was the first major global political scandal before the fall-out of the 2016 US elections and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. To many observers, then, the pushback in India signaled the end of Free Basics. Indeed, in my research, I find that there is a peak of global news coverage in 2015 related to India, and then it dramatically decreases, as if the project had stopped (Figure 2). But this is highly misleading.
Figure 2 – Number of news stories about “Free Basics” and “Internet.org” across 1500 Global English Language sources, June 2013 – July 2019
In fact, Facebook moved forward with the project around the world, particularly in Africa. In early 2016, Free Basics was reportedly available in 30 countries. By the end of 2016, Facebook reported that Free Basics – along with other Facebook connectivity projects – had contributed to bringing online 40 million people. By the end of 2018, the number was up to 100 million people. By 2019, the number of reported countries had increased to 65 countries, including 30 in Africa.
One should be cautious here because these numbers are provided by Facebook. There is a need for independent data, but this is a challenge because access to Free Basics is geographically restricted. You have to be in the country, using a sim card from a partnering telecom operator to access the service. In my research, I used a VPN service with locations in all countries on the continent. This did not allow me to access Free Basics per se; however, each country has a different landing page for 0.freebasics.com which states if the service is available, and in partnership with which telcos.
Figure 3 shows what I found.
In June 2020, Free Basics was live in 29 African nations and no longer available in 3. There were also discrepancies between what Facebook reports as the current countries and telco partners, and what I found. My full analysis discusses this in more details, as well as countries where the project was announced but not launched, and Egypt where it was banned. Overall, 32 African countries offered Free Basics at some point since 2014. Too often, generalizations about Africa are not helpful but, in this case, it’s certainly quite a continental expansion.
Figure 3 –Overview of Free Basics in Africa
Explaining the apparent silence
Why didn’t we see more pushback across these African nations like the one in India? And why wasn’t there more of a spillover effect from the India debate to these other countries? In my paper, I argue that it’s because of the combination of two key interrelated phenomena: 1) Facebook’s evolving strategy in Africa, particularly its growing engagement with civil society organizations; and 2) the focus of digital rights activists across the continent on other issues including internet shutdowns, government censorship, and the lack of data privacy frameworks.
In light of the India debacle, Facebook increased its engagement with local civil society groups. In partnership with a South African NGO – the Praekelt Foundation – it launched an incubator to proactively onboard 100 social organizations onto the Free Basics platforms. This included large organizations like the World Food Programme or the UNHCR. But it also involved digitally oriented, primarily South-Africa based civil society organizations like Code for Africa, Amandla Mobi, and Africa Check – and in a way, capturing actors that may have led the charge against Free Basics.
Other aspects of Facebook’s evolving strategy include:
- Ending public communication about Free Basics;
- Investing in communities of developers and software engineers (who were at the forefront of the backlash in India) – particularly in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa. In 2018, for instance, Facebook opened NG_HUB in Lagos, a space designed for the training, work, and socialization of creatives and developers.
- Greater interaction and partnerships with local civil society groups and digital rights communities to work on issues like misinformation, fact-checking, and online safety – and so here again, building links with communities who may have led the challenge to Free Basics.
- Investing in other connectivity and infrastructural projects less opposable on net neutrality grounds. These include the Express WI-FI initiative now available in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Senegal and Malawi; fiber optic cables in South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria; Internet Exchange Points (IXP), in partnership with the non-profit organization the Internet Society; and in May 2020, Facebook announced plans to construct “2Africa”, a subsea fiber optic cable surrounding the entire continent (Figure 4)
Figure 4 –Map of Facebook’s planned subsea fibre optic cable, “2Africa”
The second key phenomenon to consider is the broader political and regulatory landscape shaping the advocacy agenda of digital rights activism across the continent. Since the Arab spring, social media have been widely linked to a range of social protests on the continent, from the student movements #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall in South Africa to the citizen-led campaigns #EthiopiaProtests, #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria or #ThisFlag in Zimbabwe (see Mutsvairo, 2016 for an overview), and accompanied the departure of several authoritarian leaders, from Ben Ali in Tunisia and Compaoré in Burkina Faso to al-Bashir in Sudan. Threatened by the digital activists’ ability to circumvent traditional communication channels, several governments across the continent have turned to radical strategies to crackdown on digital freedoms. These include internet shutdowns, social media taxes, cybersecurity laws violating privacy and attacking free speech, and the arrest of bloggers. For digital rights activists, government-led digital surveillance and repression have constituted particularly pressing threats. As a result, their advocacy has largely focused on state actors.
The future of Facebook and what it means for civil society
To summarize, my research highlights two interrelated processes behind Facebook’s ability to move forward with the project across Africa. The corporation retreated from grand public relations campaigns about its supposedly philanthropic intentions and opted for a greater engagement with civil society groups and seemingly less controversial infrastructural projects. For their part, digital rights activists found themselves facing threats from state actors that felt more pressing, thereby relegating issues of zero-rating regulation to the background of their advocacy agenda.
At a time of growing calls for imagining a public interest digital ecosystem (Zuckerman, 2020), Facebook’s scramble for Africa underscores new types of investments made by tech corporations, and which deserve more critical attention from scholars, journalists and activists.
On the one hand, it sheds light on the ongoing and growing investments of Facebook in network infrastructures – a trend that other companies like Amazon and Google are also involved in – particularly in Africa. In addition to being monopolistic platforms in terms of content, one can envision these foreign corporate actors also becoming almost like internet service providers – a form of vertical integration with far reaching consequences for network sovereignty and (un)democratic control of digital infrastructures.
On the other hand, it reveals growing and increasingly fraught interactions between civil society and tech corporations. Traditional civil society organizations find themselves increasingly reliant on digital corporate platforms and software – from activists using WhatsApp to the World Food Programme and the UNHCR being partners to Free Basics. For their part, various digital rights activists in Africa are increasingly partnering with social media platforms to work on a range of issues – from misinformation and digital safety to election monitoring and fact-checking. All the while, they often rely on philanthropic funding frequently linked to tech industry fortunes built on the global extraction of data. How this funding will affect the positioning of African digital rights community vis-à-vis US tech corporations down the line, particularly regarding matters of national digital regulatory frameworks and policies, remains to be seen.
Toussaint Nothias is the Associate Director of Research at the Digital Civil Society Lab, Stanford University. His research explores journalism, civil society and digital technologies across several African contexts. He holds a PhD from the School of Media & Communication at the University of Leeds. You can find him on Twitter at @NothiasT.
This blog post is based on the following article: Nothias, T. (2020) “Access Granted: Facebook’s Free Basics in Africa.” Media, Culture & Society, 42(3): 329-348. The full paper is available open access here, and is part of a special issue on “Social Media and Democracy in Africa” edited by Bruce Mutsvairo and Helge Rønning. An earlier version of this blog post appeared on the Network Sovereignty Blog edited by Lisa Parks and Ramesh Srinivasan.