Internet access today is almost seen as ubiquitous as electricity and water.
However for many people in poorer countries around the world, access to the internet is seen as providing a better future for their families and their countries’ development.
Recently a number of companies (Google, Facebook) have expressed interest in providing a “curated” internet for free along with the infrastructure to deliver it in the form of drones and balloons (Google’s project Loon). Ultimately it will be up to the government to make the final decision on whether such technology should be implemented, but what do you think?
Should global companies be allowed to provide free internet to poor countries, and if so, what are the possible conflicts of interest?
When plans were announced to develop the infrastructure to provide what Facebook had called a “Free Basics” package, the news was met with heavy criticism. While free internet for all seems like a good deal, the proposal was seen as being purely commercially motivated rather than a humanitarian effort. As a stakeholder; facebook has limited the interface and will only provide a curated version of the internet, for example users would be able to freely access only a small number of approved websites including the facebook app and sponsors. This stands to provide facebook with many new customers, however also limits the educational access that the plan was promoted as in the first place.
There is also the potentially more serious concern of using the approved sites to deliver propaganda and advertising to influence people. Services such as this have been used recently to try to affect public opinion in all manner of areas including politics and buying habits. It is clear then that with facebook so eager to do business with india, and a number of countries on the african continent, that more must be done to understand the extent of facebooks and googles intentions and the level to which potentially billions of users exposed to the internet for the first time can be exploited.
Similarly the work of google to propose a similar project has been met with equal scepticism as again a company that thrives off advertising revenue is seen to be seeking more and more customers and tapping the 3rd world. Many current investors will clearly be in support of such motion as they too will benefit by being able to reach a wider market.
It should also be noticed that although this movement has been titled ‘free internet’, Facebook has in fact sold it to mobile operators on the basis that in time, people would be willing to pay for the full version. This hidden cost must be considered by the people before engaging with the ‘free internet service’.
Additionally, this ‘free internet’ is not only an implication for government shirked responsibility, but also a devastating blow to Africa’s domestic market in the future. If Facebook will be allowed to roll out their market in the end, a series of infrastructure will be needed to be built up who may choose to employ companies outside the African syndicate. Combined with delivering propaganda to influence people before, this will become the first step for governments losing their control to their countries. Indeed, millions of people in Africa is struggling at deprived situation. However, if economy of their countries developing to a certain stage in the future, the existence of this ‘free internet service’ will be the largest block to hinder domestic internet market development. Baidu in China is a good example for this. After Chinese authority block google, Baidu has grown up at a staggering rate.
‘GOOD THINGS CAN BE FREE’
Utilitarianism; an ethical framework states ‘an action made by an individual or in this case by companies that can/will bring the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ is considered acceptable, by providing the means of free internet to developing countries, it permits children to gain a form of education that would otherwise not have been an option, YouTube is a common and popular source of attaining knowledge, where students can even interact with ‘experts’….. for free! For the parents, this could be an opportunity for them to ensure their child’s safety via online messaging.
More so, why should they be denied this opportunity? Shouldn’t the people in Africa or participating countries be given the chance to decide for themselves? With such a complex topic with many factors such as profit that comes into play, a method where both parties are happy becomes a difficult task to accomplish; yet, in this circumstance, it works very well – Facebook obtains a new market sector and the people in developing countries receive a free means of communication. When the aspect of one’s intention is considered (virtues ethics), Mark Zuckerberg one of the intenders assured the users he is acting as a human rights defender and responding to his belief that all individuals, whether poor or rich, should have some form of access to internet (Shearlaw, 2016). As for the technology (balloons/drones) devised to be implemented to deliver the ‘free interent’ are advanced engineering designs that should not be hindered from use and should allow the inventors the approbation they deserve.
Facebook’s idea to provides more people in Africa with affordable Internet access sounds itself as a noble idea. And in spite of people widely argue that such a two-tiered internet system as a Free Basics “slows down technological progress and offers the government a shortcut that short changes the public”, we have to admit that the Internet for Africa is a great possibility to speed up development and leapfrog several decades of decline, even in spite of a censorship, restrictions and a strict government control. Free Basics might become one of the stepping stone towards development and innovation on the continent.
We cannot change political structure in Africa, but we can adapt to it. And initiatives like Free Basics is one of such solutions!
In conclusion, both of the ethical framework mentioned above permits companies to pursue with providing free internet on ethical grounds. However, after an ethical evaluation, it seems as though the solution cannot be simplified as a black and white case, either implement it or not, there are other options available, for instance facebook offering a full version but at a cost; as a core concept of running a business is to make profit, this eliminates the problem of facebook causing propaganda. Moreover, the user can be made aware of the limitations before accepting the terms and conditions.
So we ask again? Is it ethically right for global companies to be allowed to provide free internet to poor countries?
Group 15: Joshua Jones, Siriu Li, Thamanna Siddiqa, Margarita Pashkina