Dear Mr. Zuckerberg: Thanks for 'Free Basics' in Africa, But We're Not Totally Convinced

While we appreciate the noble intentions of, Facebook's actions and strategic business investments in Africa need to reflect its vision of bringing internet access to all Africans. Not just a slice of the internet, but all of it.
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the Facebook F8 conference in San Francisco, California April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the Facebook F8 conference in San Francisco, California April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

About a week ago, Nigeria -- Africa's largest economy and most populous country -- became the 40th country in the world, and the 22nd in Africa, to join Facebook's Free Basics.

With over 15 million active users (and growing), Facebook is very popular in Nigeria. Actually, it's more popular than the internet in Nigeria. In a 2015 survey by Geopoll, commissioned by Quartz, up to 65 percent of Nigerians who participated in the survey agree with the statement that "Facebook is the internet."

It's a shocking realization, but it makes sense since many Nigerians spend a huge chunk of their "internet time" on Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. (Note: for those who don't know, Instagram and Whatsapp are also owned by Facebook.)

Free Basics, which just launched in Nigeria, is part of Mark Zuckerberg's initiative to bring internet access to billions of people living in the world's developing regions. With Free Basics, users have free access to a "limited edition" of the internet; they can access services and information on selected websites -- but cannot access all of the internet.

In essence, Mr. Zuckerberg is offering us just a slice of the internet. For millions of Africans who cannot afford to pay for continuous internet access, this slice is far more preferable to zero access.

This must be a good thing for Africa, right? After all, over the last decade, the internet has had a far more transformative impact in Africa than all the billions of dollars in foreign aid. The internet is Africa's biggest opportunity to accelerate development and leapfrog several decades of decline. It has become a springboard for entrepreneurship and innovation on the continent, and has proven to be a highly effective tool for deepening literacy, increasing access to information, promoting free speech and defending democracy.

With the progress Africa has achieved through the internet so far, one can only imagine how much more the continent can achieve when millions more come on board. And initiatives like Free Basics, backed by a heavyweight like Facebook, have a tremendous potential to bring millions of unconnected Africans online for the first time.

But unlike the ancient city of Troy which delightfully embraced the gifted "Trojan Horse," put down their guard and slumbered into the night, Africa must stay vigilant and keep its eyes on Free Basics, and other initiatives like it; or there could be very grave consequences if we don't.

While Africa should delightfully embrace Facebook's Free Basics, here's why we must keep our eyes open...

The Indian flop

Despite very promising prospects in one of the world's largest developing economies, Free Basics was kicked out of India, one of the few countries where it was first launched.

How come? Like Africa, India has a large population of people who have zero access to the internet.

However, the Telecoms Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) accused Facebook of handpicking internet services that are included in Free Basics, and for discriminating against websites outside its "walled garden," including Facebook's competitors. It also alleged that Facebook failed to answer standard questions concerning Free Basics, and blocked access to TRAI's designated email for users' feedback on the service.

In February 2016, Free Basics was sent packing as a result of the TRAI's "Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services" regulations.

While Facebook claims to have learned hard lessons from its Indian flop, African governments and regulators must ensure that the flaws and concerns raised by the Indians are thoroughly addressed as Free Basics spreads across the African continent.

The nagging question of "net neutrality"

Net neutrality activists have been the fiercest and most outspoken critics of Free Basics, and other initiatives like it.

Net neutrality is a principle that advocates for equality and openness in the treatment of data and access to the internet; not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, website, platform, application or mode of communication.

While Mr. Zuckerberg firmly believes that restrictive editions of the internet like Free Basics and the principles of net neutrality can co-exist, I have banged my head against the wall several times to imagine how that would happen.

Africa's history is littered with governments and "gatekeepers" who seek to censor and control access to information, monopolize public conversations, and regulate communication and expression. The open internet is helping to break that stranglehold, and the outcomes could change everything (or most things) for the continent. Therefore, it's in Africa's best interests to hold on to the principles of net neutrality to avoid a return to the "dark days."

Facebook says it doesn't handpick the services on Free Basics anymore, and now admits any service or website that meets its "criteria." This sounds comforting, but we must not lose our guard as long as Facebook -- a profit-driven, U.S.-based company -- retains gate-keeper powers over millions of Africans who will likely come online as a result of Free Basics.

Strangely, it's not as noble as it looks

Without a doubt, Facebook's Free Basics will have a huge impact on the lives of millions of Africans it'll bring on the internet.

But if Facebook's intention is to make internet access more affordable and available to more people on the continent, how come it doesn't have any data centers in Africa? Why isn't it investing in physical infrastructure and technologies that will bring down the cost of internet data in Africa? Why must content generated by Facebook users in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya or anywhere else on the continent have to travel through undersea fiber-optic cables to data centers on other continents?

All these questions are begging for answers. After all, the costs of sending gigabits of traffic to overseas data centers would be totally unnecessary if Facebook stored African-generated content on African soil.

While we appreciate the noble intentions of Free Basics, Facebook's actions and strategic business investments in Africa need to reflect its vision of bringing internet access to all Africans. Not just a slice of the internet, but all of it.

Great for the short term, dangerous for the long

The immediate opportunities and rewards from bringing millions of Africans on the internet -- albeit on a restrictive basis -- far outweigh the potential "side effects" of initiatives like Mr. Zuckerberg's Free Basics.

While we continue to pursue investments and policies that will improve Africa's internet infrastructure and make access more affordable and widespread across the continent, Free Basics is a great practical solution, in the short term, to Africa's internet challenges.

For the long term, we must be very careful and deliberate. Africa cannot afford to have a section of its population force-fed on a limited version of the internet. For openness, equality, innovation and competition to thrive, every African should have the fundamental right to access any service or information on the open internet; without censorship, restrictions or discrimination.

Until this happens, Africa remains thankful to Mr. Zuckerberg for Free Basics, but we'll surely keep our eyes on it!