Global Digital Divide

Free Basics and Digital Colonialism in Africa

May 03, 2020

“Nothing comes free. Nothing. Not even good, especially not good” - Lyndon B. Johnson

In 2016, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made his first ever trip to sub-Saharan Africa where he met with local businesses and developers in Nigeria. He visited a coding camp for kids and toured a center for innovation, but under the veil of philanthropy, the trip was all business. Zuckerberg ended his visit insinuating that Africans would not fight back against Facebook and Free Basics like India has done in the past because in his words, “Africa is the opposite.”

But people like John-Paul Iwuoha, a Nigerian author and a champion for entrepreneurship in Africa, are pushing back and questioning Facebook’s true motives. As the founder of a start up in Nigeria, Iwuoha knows the importance of internet access and how the internet can help Africa. He views the internet as “a springboard for entrepreneurship and innovation on the continent” but warns that unlike the people of Troy that embraced the gift of the Trojan Horse and put down their guards, the people of Africa “must stay vigilant and keep its eyes on Free Basics” or suffer “very grave consequences”. The offer of free internet seems too good to decline. Bringing millions of Africans on the internet is a powerful way for a western company to aid the African continent, but the ways in which Facebook is implementing the platform imposes greater long-term damages. Iwuoha warns,

*“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”.*

Although Free Basics promises internet access for free, African citizens such as Iwuoha are wary of the thinly veiled motives behind the program.

In 2013, fresh off its initial public offering Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared: “Connectivity is a human right.” Zuckerberg, looking to capture the next billion internet users with a new initiative dubbed, summed up his mission, continuing, “everything Facebook has done has been about giving all people around the world the power to connect.” was to be the next chapter of Facebook’s benevolent narrative. The project set out to extend internet access to the two-thirds of the world not online. The pitch was both a philanthropic gesture to bring basic internet access at no charge and a nod to new shareholders that Facebook’s growth potential was nearly limitless.

Fast forward to today. Facebook’s initiative has stumbled, prompting Facebook to rebrand as Free Basics. Instead of addressing systematic cost barriers, Free Basics enables them by providing an inferior experience for those unable to afford service otherwise, and with full reign over content, the platform proves loyal to its own corporate interests over the locality it serves. A legion of doubters and critics have grown as Facebook has become more powerful, profitable, and suspect in its business practices. Tim Berners-Lee, one of the inventors of the World Wide Web, warns “no it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity… I think [it] is a step backwards,” in response to Facebook claiming its intentions to make the internet access more affordable and widely available. Global Voices, an NGO formed to protect the rights of citizen journalists, highlights systematic features such as language and content that limit its utility for the African population. To appease some of these critics, rebranded as Free Basics to address the concerns that the name conflated user perception of Facebook and the internet as the same, which in 2015, was the case when a survey revealed that 65% of African participants agreed with the statement that “Facebook is the Internet”. Hitting an even larger roadblock, the program was evicted from India over claims of net neutrality infringement. However, none of this information was publicized by Facebook itself. The company has been suspiciously quiet, publishing very little information online and no longer marketing the philanthropic narrative. And yet, Free Basics has grown to operate in 65 countries and territories, 30 of which are part of the African continent. Given the growing influence, it is more important than ever to raise the question of whether or not Free Basics follows the right approach. Is the philanthropic promise to connect the world the whole story?

Many say no. Free Basics gives users an incomplete picture of the internet and does little more than further Facebook’s bottom line. Under the guise of philanthropy, Facebook saw Africa as an untapped market, a way to grow a new user base while simultaneously collecting a trove of data to monetize at very little expense to the company. Lacking localized content and failing to adequately address true connectivity concerns, Free Basics is a threat to the digital future in developing nations. Should the platform continue to operate in its current state without considerable improvements or government regulation, the long-term repercussions of digital colonialism will far outweigh the short-term rewards. We expand upon this claim by outlining what constitutes digital colonialism and examining the growth of Free Basics in three African countries. Considering the platform’s strengths and weaknesses in Zambia, Kenya, and Ghana, we recommend that in order for Free Basics to truly prove philanthropic and avoid digital colonialism it must expand digital offerings, show investment in the community, and better address the local preferences of its users. Additionally, African governments have the opportunity to influence the digital future of their countries. We strongly encourage them to pass protective legislation pertaining to data protection in order to prevent irreversible damage.

What is digital colonialism?

Digital colonialism refers to a 21st century form of colonialism whereby a foreign power enters and seeks digital dominance in the developing world. Rich with reference to past injustice, the modern concept, much like its predecessor, involves exploitative control and extraction of resources. Michael Kwet, author of Digital Colonialism: US empire and the new imperialism in the Global South and visiting Fellow at Yale Law School, explains that the political, economic, and social influences rampant in today’s global economy make “corporate giants as well as state intelligence agencies the new imperialists in the international community”. He defines the concept of digital colonialism as follows:

“Digital colonialism involves economic domination through monopolization of essential IT landscape functions, imperial control through domination of infrastructure created for Western needs that adheres to Western governance, global surveillance capitalism via corporations, imperial state surveillance, and the ideology that big data and centralized clouds are ‘an inevitable part of technological expansion’” (Kwet).

According to Renata Avila, an international lawyer and executive director of digital rights protector Intelligent Citizens Foundation, there are two main conditions for a country to be primed as a victim of digital colonialism. First, the locality lacks financial and intellectual resources. There is an undersupply of funding to stimulate technology sectors, and local companies fall short in comparison to the billion-dollar corporate entrants boasting advantageous economies of scale. Second, the domestic and international legal atmospheres have provisions that make it harder for local companies to innovate. This may include harsh, anti-competitive laws or underdeveloped privacy regimes that cannot properly protect and inform citizens (Kwet). Given these inherent challenges faced by less established economies, Big Tech companies can easily gain a foothold in countries.

And they certainly have. Instead of designing railroads to carry crops and minerals to ports, today’s corporations from Silicon Valley are designing IT infrastructure to harvest one of the modern world’s most valuable resources: data. Long-term dependencies bestow Western companies with immense control over this data as more and more Big Tech firms actively deploy strategies to dominate Africa’s digital economy. As Kwet said in an interview with us on April 24, 2020, the users of Facebook’s Free Basics “get this onramp, which is a Facebook-curated preview, mini-version [of the internet] in which ostensibly Facebook is mining data”, whether users are fully aware of this or not. This is currently happening in Zambia, Kenya, and Ghana, and across the African continent.

Case Study: The Republic of Zambia

  • Established Independence: 1964
  • Population: ~17,400,00
  • Language(s): English is the official language, but 70+ are spoken mostly stemming from Bantu
  • Size Comparison: slightly larger than Texas
  • Urban Population: 44.6%
  • Average Real GDP Growth: 6.7%
  • Economy: reliant on copper production
  • Population Below Poverty Line: 54.4%
  • Unemployment Rate: 15%
  • Government Debt: 60% of GDP (mostly as a result of agreements on Chinese financed infrastructure project)
  • Other: Zambia has a high population density in central areas, but the country suffers from a distinct urban-rural divide. A lack of family planning services, education, and employment for women contributes to a 4% annual fertility rate, one of the highest in the world. Education spending is low and the country has few schools for doctors, nurses, and health care workers.

Zambia was one of the first countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to adopt the internet through the installation of dial-up and satellite technology in the 1990s. In 2001, Zambia recognized a need for technological improvement and independence and adopted the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) which worked to promote Africa as a globally competitive digital society. In the years from 2004 to 2013, the internet penetration rate grew from 2% to over 15% while mobile phone penetration grew from 4% to 72%. However, the mobile broadband subscription in 2013 was only 0.7%, with poorly developed internet infrastructure in rural areas. In these areas, citizens accessed the internet through cybercafés since the cost of internet connection was highly expensive, and in 2013, low-income Zambians spent 35% of their income on mobile broadband subscriptions.

Free Basics in Zambia

In 2014 Facebook launched in Zambia, the first country to receive its services. In a post on Facebook, Zuckerberg stated that “only 15% of people in Zambia have access to the internet”, hinting that the country provided Facebook with the opportunity to fulfill’s mission to bring more people online as Zambia lacked the financial and intellectual ability to do so by themselves. is available as an Android app for Zambian consumers using the Airtel mobile network, one of three major service providers alongside MTN and state-owned Zamtel. The appprovides access to services such as Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), a UN-sponsored group that provides pregnant women and new mothers with information and support, and Go Zambia Jobs, a job search site. Zuckerberg and Facebook hoped that with access to the internet through Free Basics, Zambians would be able to find jobs and get help with reproductive health, two areas of concern in the country. In a promotional video, Facebook uses the stories of several Zambians to show how Free Basics is helping the country. The video highlights a rice grower who learns to make a mattress for schoolkids out of rice using google search, a mother with two kids using MAMA to ask questions and learn more about her health condition enabling her to sleep better, and a farmer posting pictures of his infected chickens on Facebook and receiving suggestions and remedies. Words used to describe the use of Free Basics in the video include “empowering” and “helpful”.

However, a further look into some of the Free Basics users in Zambia shows a more negative reception of the app. Dr. Wendy Willems, currently a professor at the London School of Economics, conducted fieldwork with mobile internet users in Zambia in 2016. According to her interactions, Free Basics was not being as enthusiastically embraced as Facebook’s promotional video suggested. Some users found that there was a stigma associated with using the app, an inability to purchase data to access the full internet as an indication of poverty. Others reported that the app inhibited full interaction with users since photos or videos are not accessible. Free Basics has also allowed Facebook to shape a user’s internet experience. Out of the 16 apps that Free Basics provides access to, only 3 of them are local Zambian companies or services. In Zambia, Facebook messenger started to replace email, businesses began to market services on Facebook instead of their own sites, and online news companies posted articles directly on Facebook. With the limited selection of services available on the app, the user’s experience is one that is highly westernized. Instead of just helping connect Zambians to the internet, it has reshaped the entire experience. A journalist from Techtrends Zambia stated that “Facebook is ‘the internet’ in the 3rd world” and that Facebook is used more than traditional mobile services.

In 2017, mobile service provider MTN, competitor of Airtel, launched Facebook Flex which allowed subscribers access to a “full” version of Facebook. Though Facebook Flex has expanded access to some features such as posting status updates and messaging, the platform still limits user access to images and videos just as the version of Facebook on Free Basics. MTN most likely partnered with Facebook in response to Airtel’s ongoing use of Free Basics and the growing popularity of social media in the country. The role of social media and information available became more crucial during recent government elections. Facebook and WhatsApp were sources of real-time information during the Zambian elections in 2016, especially with the constraints on freedom of press and expression from the government and the high costs of newspapers. However, Zambian readers challenged the quality of the information on Facebook as well as the presence of one sided news sources; Zambia Reports is one of the only news sites available to users. Combined with limited content, Free Basics is failing to give users the full story.

Current Technological State

While no data on Free Basics usage is available, Airtel’s mobile customer base nearly doubled in the months after the partnership with Free Basics while the internet penetration rate for the country has grown over 30% in the 5 years since introduction. A survey by the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA) found that 71% of smartphone users access apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook. Three major mobile service providers, MTN, Airtel, and Zamtel each have 44%, 40% and 16% of the market respectively and each has lowered the cost of data bundles by 70% in response to the competition. However, the internet is still very expensive for Zambians in rural areas despite use of Free Basics. In August 2018, the Zambian government proposed a tax on web-based communication platforms (including Facebook Messenger) which would further increase the price of data, but this has yet to be implemented. If implemented, the tax would cost users $0.03 per day. Dora Siliya, the minister of information and the government’s spokeswoman, explains that apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp have an unfair advantage over Zambian companies. She believes that implementing a tax will save jobs in Zambia by keeping the telecommunications industry competitive. However, others see the tax as a way to pay off debt while also curbing freedom of expression, which the Zambian government has been attempting to control. While Free Basics has helped connect Zambians to the internet, both users and the government are concerned about its implications on social, political, and economic life.

Case Study: The Republic of Kenya

  • Established Independence: 1963
  • Population: ~53,500,000
  • Official Language(s): English, Swahili
  • Size Comparison: double the size of Nevada
  • Urban Population: 28%
  • Economy: ⅓ GDP attributed to agriculture (tea, coffee, corn, wheat), which employs ~75% of the population
  • Average Real GDP Growth: 5.5%
  • Population Below Poverty Line: 36.1%
  • Unemployment Rate: 40%
  • Government Debt: 54.2% of GDP
  • Other: Kenya passed a new constitution in 2010 to replace the 1969 version previously passed.

Kenya’s 2018 Data Protection Bill

Kenya’s 2018 Data Protection Bill (DPB) closely mirrors GDPR, the landmark data privacy regulation standards set by the European Union in early 2018. It gives citizens the right to ask how their data is being collected, used, and stored; the right to request the deletion of their data; and finally, the right to ask companies to not use personal data for things like advertising. This law applies to those who live in Kenya, anyone who has data in Kenya on a server, or even has data that has been passed through Kenya. Most importantly, the DPB directly ties to the 2010 Constitution of Kenya’s right to not have private information revealed. The final version was passed on November 8, 2019 and included penalties for violation: a maximum fine of 3 million shillings (approximately $29,283) or 2 years in jail.

The implications of Kenya’s DPB are immense, especially in terms of Free Basics. Although the law is still new and data has not yet been reported on internet users or major cases since being passed, the law aligns Kenya with developed nations and alliances such as the EU in its efforts to protect data and regulate market participants like Free Basics. These government protections are important given low digital literacy in Kenya and other developing nations. Digital literacy involves informed understanding of both capabilities and implications of technology, and lack of such awareness paves the way for systematic exploitation and violation of rights. If users do not understand the technology at their fingertips, then not only are they unaware of technology’s potential to be used beneficially, but additionally they risk being taken advantage of. Consent, a norm for internet functionality, is designed to shift risk from platform to user. But with terms of consent often unclear, the question arises of whether this tactic is fair if a user is not adequately informed. For example, many users consent to company use of data because to deny so would be to forfeit the right to use the platform. Free Basics operates in this way, requiring users to agree to terms and conditions that are a black box to even the most digitally knowledgeable. Without improved digital literacy, the true benefits of the internet cannot be harvested. To bring people online without simultaneously cultivating awareness diminishes philanthropic intent.

Kenya’s High Court Rules in Favor of Privacy

In April 2018, the High Court of Kenya ruled against a plan to provide the authorities with mobile subscriber data, including call data records, as this was ruled a violation of privacy. In the case, Okoiti v. Communications Authority of Kenya, government control and surveillance protocols similar to the PRISM program in the United States were ruled violations of privacy. Although this is aimed at curbing government action, it shows Kenya moving in a direction to protect citizens from surveillance of any kind.

Free Basics in Kenya

Free Basics was launched in Kenya in November of 2014 in partnership with service provider Airtel. Therefore, in order to access Free Basics in Kenya users must use an Airtel SIM card/line and a smartphone. Purchasing a SIM card in Kenya requires a National, Alien ID or passport (for non-Kenyans) and costs roughly $1 (USD). In order to download Free Basics, you either must access WiFi or purchase a data plan to download the application. Airtel Kenya’s website lists the websites that are part of the Free Basics program. The only two free “communication” category websites accessible with Free Basics are Facebook and Messenger. Clicking a link that would cause you to leave the Free Basics website prompts a message which warns you of the data charges associated with leaving the ecosystem. Thus, users wishing to truly capitalize on the “free” aspect must use Facebook and Messenger for communication purposes.

The Kenyan version of Free Basics allows users to choose between English and Swahili interfaces though the default setting is English. However, the terms of use are only in English and many sites are not able to be translated to Kishwahili. This is evidence that the application cannot serve Kenyans who know little or no English, which is a large portion of the nation. English is estimated to be spoken by only 9% of the population and mostly in business contexts. Additionally, there are at least 7 dialects and 3 sub-dialects of Swahili spoken in Kenya alone, something that Free Basics fails to account for. In terms of its philanthropic goal of giving people access to the internet, Free Basics may not be hitting the mark in Kenya.

Only three local services and three regional services are listed on Free Basics, according to an April 2017 study of the Kenyan version of the app. Regional services include BBC Africa; Jamiiforums, a Tanzania-based social messaging board for East Africa that mostly caters to Tanzanian trends and stories; and SuperSport, a South African group of television channels. Local services are Brighter Monday, a Kenyan-founded job posting website; Daily Nation, a Kenyan independent newspaper; and Fuzu, an online job recruiting and advice website based in Kenya). The remaining services are Western-focused and do not necessarily serve Kenyan interests.

On February 11, 2016 Kenya’s ICT Secretary, Joe Mucheru, chose not to block access to Free Basics despite India’s decision to disallow the service following net neutrality concerns. Instead, Secretary Mucheru encouraged private sector partnerships to increase internet expansion in Kenya. The government’s choice to ignore net neutrality concerns came following data that showed Free Basics did in fact increase internet penetration. While there was a substantial change in reported internet users immediately post-launch, there was no substantial change in freedom, a metric reported annually by Freedom House, associated with Free Basics.

Total internet penetration spiked by 7.2% during the quarter that Free Basics was released. These figures are substantially greater than past trends, indicating that Free Basics did in fact increase internet penetration in Kenya. The report from September to December 2014, the quarter Free Basics launched, showed that mobile internet users grew 10.8% while total internet users grew 12.6% (total users finished at 26.1mm, mobile at 16.3mm). Mobile internet growth quarter had been only 5.9% the quarter before. Mobile internet subscription growth had also been concentrated in Safaricom as well with about 10.5 million before Free Basics. Furthermore, previous quarters had been adding anywhere from 1.1-2.3% to the internet penetration each quarter. Additionally, Airtel was credited with an increase in mobile data market share from 14.6% to 18.5% during the same quarter from just December to March 2014. Clearly, this shows the anti-competitive nature of the service in Kenya specifically.

Though internet usage certainly increased following the introduction of Free Basics, it is less clear whether or not increased online traffic brought about greater freedom. Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Net study reports freedom scores meant to evaluate a country’s internet control and quantify how free the internet is. A score of 0 is representative of the most freedom while 100 the least freedom. In 2013, prior to Free Basics’ Kenyan launch, Kenya earned an internet freedom score of 28 out of 100. For reference, the United States earned a 17 out of 100 and China earned an 86 out of 100 that same year. Freedom House considers scores below 30 to be “free”, meaning Kenya’s internet was at this time. In fact, Kenya had the second-best rated internet in Sub-Saharan Africa (first was South Africa), and the country had a downward score trajectory, projecting a future increase in freedom of the net in Kenya.

In 2014, immediately following the launch of Free Basics, Kenya received a score of 29. For comparison, the US scored 19 and China scored 88 that year. Kenya remained the second most free internet in Sub-Saharan Africa (again behind South Africa), and the report listed only 2 topics that were censored on the Kenyan internet: criticism of authorities and party censored corruption. Kenya’s current freedom score has been only slightly downgraded. The grading scale was changed slightly, but Kenya’s 2019 score is the equivalent of 32 out of 100, compared to the US which is now scored at 23 out of 100. This downgrade classifies Kenya as “partly free” given the score above 30 and is mostly related to election issues and prominence of disinformation, not necessarily Free Basics presence. Though it is too early to assess long-term changes in the freedom score, the short-term data suggests that Free Basics has neither improved nor significantly damaged Kenya’s internet freedom. However, one important caveat: Freedom House’s metrics do not take into account net neutrality violations.

Case Study: The Republic of Ghana

  • Established Independence: 1957
  • Population: ~29,700,000
  • Language(s): English (official), Akan, Ewe
  • Size Comparison: 2x the size of New York
  • Urban Population: 57.3%
  • Economy: gold, oil, diamonds are prevalent, which led to World Bank to label them as a top five fastest growing economy in 2019
  • Population Below Poverty Line: 24.2%
  • Unemployment Rate: 11.9%
  • Government Debt: 71.8% of GDP
  • Other: Ghana struggled economically through a series of military coups spanning decades before finding stability in 1992. In 1992 Ghana adopted a new constitution based on the US model, which made Ghana a unitary republic with an executive presidency and a multiparty political system.

Internet service in Ghana is among the best in Africa. Approximately 53% of people live in urban areas where the country proves well connected and speeds are increasing. As one of the first African countries to liberalize its telecommunications market, 67% of Ghanaians are mobile subscribers. This is notably higher than the 44% average in Sub-Saharan Africa. Access to the Internet via mobile increased from 2% in 2005 to 45% in 2018. However, rural communities still lack access, and this is one of the most pressing issues, second only to price. The internet is very expensive for companies; as William Will Senyo, co-founder and CEO of ImpactHub Accra explains, “There is high speed Internet, but it costs an arm and a leg. It costs you $15 to $100,000 dollars a year to have somewhere between 50 and 100 mbps stable high-speed fiber Internet. So how many companies can afford that? Very few.” And for the average consumer? The price for 1GB of mobile data is slightly over 2% of an average monthly income. This is where Free Basics saw the opportunity to enter the market.

Free Basics in Ghana

Free Basics entered Ghana in 2015 under agreements with three telecommunications companies: Airtel, Tigo, and MTN. Though MTN dropped service in 2016 for undisclosed reasons, the remaining two partners continued to introduce people to the benefits of the internet through Facebook’s Free Basics platform. Free Basics in Ghana carries with it many of the controversies previously reported, including rampant data collection, limited accessibility, questions of net neutrality, and sparse local content. However, what is interesting about Free Basics in Ghana is the fact that citizens blame negative implications on the government or local partner, not the Western entrants. But just as criticism is aimed locally, so is praise. The credit attributed to local entities highlights Ghana’s desire to grow domestically, using platforms such as Free Basics as stepping stones towards taking innovation into their own hands. But more than technological innovation is needed, as the largest barriers facing Ghana include rural infrastructure and accessibility, digital literacy, and exorbitant prices. Therefore, Free Basics isn’t addressing the major concerns in Ghana through mere introduction to the Internet. The population is past this point, and while such pursuits sound nice and philanthropic written in a Facebook 10K, there are more vital investments Facebook could make.

Free Basics is not perceived as synonymous with the Internet in Ghana. The majority on the Free Basics platform are not first-time users, and they associate the service with their telecom provider, not Facebook. This is the result of strategic marketing by telcos. Airtel runs extensive advertising campaigns in and around Accra, Ho, Kumasi, and Cape Coast that brands Free Basics as “free Facebook from Airtel”, a tactic that certainly works to their advantage as it has led many users to refer to Free Basics in that way and attribute the app to a telco promotion. This provenly reduced conflation among Facebook, Free Basics, and “the Internet”, thus preventing manipulation of citizens perception and awareness of the Internet itself. By creating a culture where Free Basics is viewed as “free Facebook from Airtel”, users do not assume that the limited functionality they are given mimics the entirety of the Internet’s abilities. This strategic marketing scheme not only positively impacted Airtel, but also clearly delineated the difference between Free Basics as one platform, a mere subset, and the Internet as omega.

While it is beneficial that local telcos receive benefits from the association of free Facebook and their brand, the flip-side is that the local environment also bears the brunt of complaints. Ghanaians talk more of “digital inclusion” compared to “net neutrality” and perceive zero-rated applications to be “part of a larger experience of Ghanaian digital inclusion”. This stems from Ghana’s global reputation as an originator of email scams and fraud schemes, a reputation that has led the country to experience digital exclusion. In various interviews, Ghanaians were more interested in finding out what they had access to compared to other countries, not out of desire for net neutrality but out of complaints that Ghana has been digitally excluded due to its reputation. Users seem to see this as a need to change the reputation of Ghanaians because of the past, not necessarily a denial of net neutrality by Western powers like Facebook. There is positive support for Western sources because it is an indication that Ghana is not being excluded from global media. This highlights the country by country nuances involved in conversations surrounding net neutrality and localized content. Free Basics could better appease Ghanaians by providing information regarding what Free Basics includes in other countries, something not currently transparent.

Though country by country details are not as transparent as some Ghanaians might like, disclosures do indicate that Free Basics in Ghana operates similarly to other countries where content is limited and not highly localized. Majority of sites are Western media conglomerates, with only three local to Ghana. Full use of websites is not guaranteed, as images and videos are often removed. The search engine Bing is available with limited utility because links from the search results may not be free to access. Users are notified that “Data Charges Apply”, thus preventing access unless a data plan exists. This clearly shows Facebook’s corporate interest and end game: the desire to turn free users into paying users. Additionally, none of Facebook’s competitors (e.g. Twitter) are included, nor are email platforms. This is particularly sensitive in Ghana, as previously mentioned, where many of the fraud schemes were email scams. Thus, this exclusion of email is viewed as perpetuating the reputation that Ghana is a global threat if granted email access. This is an example where reduction in access even psychologically diminishes the user base because Facebook lacks a broader understanding of the history of the country and implications derived from that history. It also highlights a gaping hole in localizing not only the content, but the experience.

The reality is that digital experience, not merely digital connectivity, is overdue for innovation in Ghana, and the mission of Free Basics does not adequately address this. Expanding online participation, Free Basics’ goal, is not possible in Ghana when the platform only addresses the barrier of cost, a barrier that the service doesn’t actually seek to destroy but rather to justify. Free Basics introduces people to the benefits of the internet and aims to bring more online, giving them a taste for the possibilities but denying them the entirety of the benefits unless they pay. This tactfully convinces people to expand their service and become paying members without doing anything to reduce the high costs that prevent accessibility. It is a form of systematic oppression which Free Basics is actually exacerbating. Inaccessibly high costs as well as barriers like rural infrastructure and digital literacy create a ceiling for expansion in the country that demands to be addressed.

The Potential of Free Basics

As Facebook’s initial promotional videos highlight, Free Basics does have the potential to help individuals in developing countries commercially and personally. The now inactive YouTube channel presents many stories of users growing their businesses by connecting with customers and partners and learning new information to solve business problems. With many users improving and growing their businesses, this small-scale benefit could be realized on a larger scale in the local economy. In addition to solving business issues, Free Basics helps to address healthcare needs. About 1,000 women die every day from preventable pregnancy and childbirth issues, and 99% of these deaths occur in developing countries. The number of deaths for women in rural and impoverished areas is even higher. Messaging and prenatal care reminders via mobile technology have been shown to reduce preventable fatality, and Free Basics offers health messaging services in Zambia, Kenya, and Ghana. Free Basics also offers services to help those living with AIDs. Before Free Basics, many mobile health programs tried to address this issue and failed because patients could not afford mobile broadband subscriptions. Even though it is limited, free messaging helps to address these health issues.

Additionally, there is no shortage of data that ties internet access to economic gains and development, and Free Basics has certainly helped Zambia, Kenya, and Ghana increase the number of internet-connected citizens. Since its introduction to Zambia, internet penetration has grown 30%. Kenya saw a 7.2% spike in the quarter Free Basics was introduced compared to average increases of 1.1-2.3% in the past. Ghana’s internet penetration was 19.6% in 2015 and has grown to 38.2% as of June 2019. While these numbers don’t explicitly say where the new users come from, the growing usage of Free Basics is considered a leading cause.

At the heart of many of these benefits is the fact that this platform is free. Considering how expensive data plans are for many Africans, especially in comparison to the average salary, cost is a substantial barrier to internet access. While the average price of $12.37/GB in the United States sounds high compared to Kenya’s $2.73, it is all relative. The average American spends less than .001% on data compared to 35% for lower-income Kenyans in 2013. Across the entire African continent, the average portion of income spent on 1 GB of data is 9%. This is a startling difference, so although users see pop-ups prompting payment if they attempt to navigate out of the platform, the “free” part of free basics should not be overlooked in its importance.

Recommendations for Improvement

There is no denying that the internet has transformative potential. It is a tool to accelerate development, deepen literacy, increase access to information, promote free speech, and defend democracy. But only if implemented correctly. In the short-term Free Basics might yield positive outcomes for developing nations, but there is a fine line between short-term benefit and long-term development. Facebook needs to better address the implications of its platform by localizing both experience and content to better meet the immediate and future needs of the markets it enters. Simultaneously, countries need to craft legislation enabling innovative openness, equality, and competition on the internet. Analysis of operations in Zambia, Kenya, and Ghana highlight different grievances and victories for Free Basics, but they also carry the same thematic undertones that demand action. Despite Facebook’s best efforts to market Free Basics as purely philanthropic, Free Basics is not merely a philanthropic endeavor. It is a profit-motivated project that supports Facebook’s bottom line, strives to convert users into paying customers, and collects valuable user data. To deny this does no good. Facebook must change the way Free Basics operates if it wishes to continue as a philanthropic project and not a digital conquest.

Free Basics must expand digital offerings in order to comply with the principles of net neutrality. Expansion involves increasing localized content and providing uninterrupted service. Zambia, Kenya, and Ghana each reported only three local services on Free Basics, a mere fraction of the overall offerings. When launching a product in another country it is imperative to consider the needs of that country. This basic business principle applies to any endeavor, and philanthropic ones should be treated no differently. It is not that Western sources are problematic outright; global content is acceptable so long as it is paired with adequate localized content. Content also needs to be made more widely available. Free Basics must enable key features like pictures and videos to ensure viewers get a whole snapshot of the internet. As outlined in the Ghana case study, current users often find themselves missing information because it is not accessible. Pop-ups demand payment to view sources, attempting to convince customers to buy a data plan. This model makes Free Basics out to be a tease, a mere slice of the internet for those who cannot afford more. Zuckerberg argues that limited access is better than no access, but with content being carefully curated there are serious concerns surrounding the influence this gives Western companies like Facebook over the masses. Dr. Willems’s raises the concern that “it paves the way for big tech to increase its power in developing countries and reduces opportunities for local platforms to develop”[1]. Selective platforms not only limit platform potential, but also tell users that they do not deserve full access, a form of digital oppression.

Expanding digital offerings calls for an updated model. Should Facebook prove committed to the philanthropic goal of internet expansion, we offer three alternative systems for consideration. The first business model involves partnering with local corporations or governments to subsidize a limited amount of free data for low-income users. Users would then be able to access the open web without limits or restrictions. In exchange for providing the capital to fund the data allowance, Facebook could be granted access to a percentage of user data. Data would have to be anonymously collected and securely handled. This model gives users control over their internet experience while still incentivizing Facebook to engage in such partnerships. The second business model shifts the cost burden from the user to the advertiser by allowing users to watch ads in exchange for a data allowance, a tactic Firefox is currently employing in Bangladesh. This makes it clear to users that they are watching a paid advertisement and once again gives them a data allowance to use on the open internet without restriction. The third business model would be to establish public WiFi in partnership with local governments. Google offered public WiFi in India for five years, providing free access to commuters in train stations. Service stopped in February 2020 because the resource no longer was necessary as mobile data prices got cheaper. Once again, this model does not restrict open access to the internet, but instead allows users to govern their experience, and the eventual decline in demand for the program shows its effectiveness in not only introducing the internet but helping consumers grow.

The above business models all aim to address net neutrality concerns. However, net neutrality is not the only issue underlying Free Basics in its current state. As explicitly stated in the Ghana case study, Free Basics does not cut to the heart of the problems surrounding internet access in developing nations. Factors like cost, digital literacy, and rural infrastructure are the main barriers to widespread access and demand investment. We recommend the Facebook commit to making an investment in one of these areas for each country in which it launches Free Basics. This investment will prove they are investing in the community, not just taking advantage of a new market opportunity. The investment amount could be determined based on a percentage of the value of the data collected.

Just as there are changes Facebook could make to Free Basics, there are precautionary measures governments can enact as well in order to improve and harness the potential of a free internet campaign. Governments have the power to regulate businesses that enter their jurisdiction and must wield that power to protect their citizens, so we recommend the following actions to help mitigate the adverse effects of Free Basics.

First, governments should require Free Basics (and any data-collecting website) to provide their terms of use in multiple languages rather than just English. As noted earlier, Free Basics’ terms of use only appear in English, which assumes a level of English proficiency that is not always reality. This failure to translate the legal documents that outline consent of use means informed consent is not possible. Additionally, many contemporary scholars point out, English is not a neutral language in many African countries. Interviews with citizens in Ghana revealed that English carries with it perceptions as “an inheritance of the British colonial period”, “the lingua franca of contemporary education”, and “the language of the internet”. There is an inherent suspicion baked into these reported perceptions, a level of mistrust associated with the English language. These perceptions are important reminders of the continents past as the future is pursued. Governments should pass a statute requiring technology companies to make their terms of use available in every official language of the country. For example, this would mean English and Swahili in Kenya, while in Ghana this would include English, Akan, and Ewe. Though it is most important to translate all legal agreements, governments should consider mandating that all application functions can be translated.

Governments must also pass data protection bills, taking lead from Kenya’s 2018 Data Protection Bill. We recommend this follow the “opt-in” model set by the European Union, where the default privacy setting is not to share data and citizens must actively choose to share it. By passing legislation to protect citizens’ right to data privacy, nations can minimize the ability of companies like Facebook to monetize yet another natural resource from Africa: data. Although it may not provide complete protection to citizens (there is always a chance companies will choose to ignore regulations or become more secretive), including appropriate penalties for breach of regulation would disincentivize such behavior. An additional benefit of these regulations would be the exposure of Free Basics’ true intentions; if Facebook truly aims to expand internet capabilities for the world sans selfish motives, then the regulations should not bother them at all.

After all, connectivity is a human right. Right, Zuck?

By: Advocates for Accessibility


Acknowledgements: we would like to thank the following individuals for agreeing to speak with us as we conducted our research and formulated our thoughts on this topic.

Kofi Yeboah: writer for Global Voices with past research on Free Basics in Ghana, current candidate for Master’s degree in Communications and Technology at the University of Alberta, Canada

Michael Kwet: Visiting Fellow at Yale’s Information Society Project with a PhD in Sociology from Rhodes University, South Africa, published author of multiple works on Digital Colonialism

Dr. Wendy Willems: Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, Program Director of the MSc Global Media and Communications (LSE and University of Cape Town), one of the founding editors of the Journal of African Media Studies

[1] Willems, Wendy. “Re: Research on Free Basics in Zambia.” 30 April 2020. E-mail.

We spent the past four months studying the most pressing issues facing the future of global technology. This site represents our attempt to dissect and contribute to the current conversation around some of those topics.

© Spring 2020, Global Digital Divide: Big Tech in a Multipolar World @ The University of Virginia