*Image sourced from Flickr. Creative Commons. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nevilzaveri/1549102797/in/photolist-8qv3e3-8qv3aN-CHjkt-4YooBn-9WhsGv-f9xwWX-pY3bLa-2VX9NF-3dUXcV-2VXexe-3dZiL5-2VXcji-a3SxFR-8qs8fR-bDr3Fk-bDr2Tv-bDr2MF-6wsyJJ-bbxpha-59Qg4u-imjsK-5GJuVz-G6u1L-o3equr-bqw6Zu-bqw5HC-bDr11K-bDr1Hv-bDr1qk-9uKXgM-mRwoq-8EXhP9-8Jz77E-eSP4RF-4eqLJC-3mTyhV-491NSB-nFJXVs-9KX1S-o35bDX-eYxa38-82khTS-5Vr1Kt-7Mx47v-eesNLn-4Ag71w-9X4Un5-dTaVuN-oT28LA-7ENp2c>*
By Eilish Toohey
Have you ever thought about who controls the Internet? It doesn’t seem like something that can be controlled—just a hodgepodge of memes, selfies and wikis; a giant pool overflowing with information that connects the entire world. Anyone can access it and use it to become somebody. Right?
The truth is that 10% of the world can’t connect to the Internet. That’s approximately 4 billion people, living in the poorest, rural areas of India, Africa and South America, who can’t afford devices or service plans, or have limited power sources and mobile networks available to them (Metz; Internet.org). And with how technologically dependent the modern world is, that is a huge disadvantage and completely unfair. Why should some countries have access to so much information while others are kept in the dark?
It turns out that Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, feels the same. He believes that since the Internet is so vital to modern life, online connectivity needs to be a basic human right. So in 2013, Facebook signed up a partnership with companies such as Opera Software, Qualcomm, Ericsson, MediaTek and Samsung to start Internet.org: a non-profit organization aiming to provide Internet services to people in developing countries through several different projects (Harrel; Brustein).
The first project was launched this past February (Brustein). A small app was released in Ghana, Colombia, Zambia, Kenya and India that allowed users to access 2G networks on cheap smartphones in areas with limited connections. Zuckerberg planned to offer the app to 94 more countries before the year was out (Harrel).
But two months after the app was released, India rejected it. Several of the country’s major companies and thousands of activists opted out of the service and protested against it (Bengali; D’Monte). What had made them so mad?
In order to reduce costs from phone companies and data use, Internet.org only offered India access to 33 websites, which the Internet.org had picked specifically: Wikipedia, job information, news articles and, of course, Facebook (Harrel; Goel).
The activists argued that this violated “net neutrality”, a term created by Tim Wu, a law professor, for a debate that has been going on since the birth of the web. Currently, the term has no set definition, but a commonly referred to one was coined by economist Scott Wallsten, which states “that broadband service providers [. . .] do not favour one content provider over another, and do not charge content providers for sending information over broadband lines to end users” (Krämer et al.).
In other words, companies providing Internet services can’t favour certain websites over others or block them from the public.
Zuckerberg insisted that the app was only trying to give users an idea of how the Internet works, but India wasn’t having it. Nobody was, because net neutrality is a worldwide debate. Nobody wants to be told they can only access information that a company decides they are allowed to see. So in May, about 65 companies and activists group from around the world protested against Internet.org by signing and publishing an open letter on Facebook. (https://www.facebook.com/notes/accessnoworg/open-letter-to-mark-zuckerberg-regarding-internetorg-net-neutrality-privacy-and-/935857379791271)
It begins with this statement:
“It is our belief that Facebook is [. . .] building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services. Further, we are deeply concerned that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to full Internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of Internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs.” (Chang).
Eventually, after the letter was published, Zuckerberg had the app rereleased and rebranded as “Free Basics”, tying back to belief of the Internet being a modern day necessity. Free Basics wasn’t as limited as the original app, but India’s skepticism remained (Srinivasan).
The app's re-branding had less to do with fixing its problems and more to do with disassociating it from Internet.org as a whole, since the organization had moved onto a much bigger and more impressive project: Aquila. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUJfhGbhl4w)
Named after the eagle that carried the Greek god Zeus’ thunderbolts into battle, Aquila is unmanned, carbon-made drone that Facebook spent 14 months making. It had its first test-flight over the UK in March (Metz; Hern). Imagine a giant boomerang covered in solar-panels, with the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and the weight of a Toyota. The drone is lifted with helium balloons between 60,000 ft and 90,00 ft into the sky. Its solar-powered battery can last 90 days while the drone circles a 3km radius (Hern).
Aquila is the prototype of what will eventually be hundreds of drones that Facebook will launch above the developing regions of India and Africa. Using laser beams, the drones will communicate with each other and with base stations on the ground to beam down wireless Internet signals (Metz). Since Aquila is currently the only finished drone, and it has yet to have a second test flight, this will be a long-term project for Internet.org.
Unlike with the app, India hasn’t attacked Zuckerberg over the Aquila project yet, though they would be well within their right to. You see, the drone project reveals a lot about the motives of Internet.org. The app showed that the organization wants to control what websites and information its users receive. The drones sour Internet.org’s ‘charity’ since the project is incredibly similar to Google’s Project Loon. (https://www.google.com/loon/)
Google has been working on their project for seven years, creating giant balloons that hover in the stratosphere, at the same height as Aquila, for 180 days at a time (Metz). Just this year, they received permission to fly the balloons over Sri Lanka (Limer). So while Google and Facebook are trying to provide better Internet services to the developing world, the real heart of Project Loon and Aquila is to see who can get their unmanned aerials into the sky first.
There’s another worrying aspect about these projects, at least to me. So to see if I was just being over dramatic, I decided to survey some students at York University—people who are constantly using the Internet—to see how the thought of hundreds of unmanned aircrafts constantly flying over part of the world initially made them feel. I didn’t have much luck finding participants while walking around campus. People seemed to be too busy to break away from their laptop to answer a couple question.
So I put the survey online. I’ll admit, only eleven students actually took the time to complete it, so this probably isn’t the most accurate collection of data. However, out of these eleven students, 64% of them agreed with me: there’s something uneasy about a bunch of laser-beaming drones hovering in the sky; something akin to the Tripods from H.G. Wells’ *War of the Worlds*, a novel that uses an alien invasion as an argument against colonialism.
And that, I believe, is the real problem with Internet.org. It is technically an attempt of digital colonialism.
Colonialism, according to the *Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English*, is “the exploitation of a people by a larger or wealthier power.” Typically, we associate colonialism with European countries conquering the Americas, forcing their ideas and beliefs on the people who lived there, and using their goods and resources to better the homeland’s economy. We see it as ‘strong’ countries taking advantage of ‘weak’ ones; not so much as companies taking control of the Internet.
But who’s to say that colonialism hasn’t updated? India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out in a speech he gave at Silicon Valley that with the number of users Facebook has, if the website were a country, it would have the third-highest population in the world (Srinivasan). The Internet is a vast, endless plane full of possibilities. It is the New World of today, and much like its predecessors, it’s a risk of becoming fully westernized.
Consider this: only 10 to 15% of the world’s population speaks English, and yet recent studies show that this language makes up at least 60% of web content; denying the majority of the world from so much information (“Digital Colonialism”). India alone has 23 recognized official languages, English being only one of them (“Languages of India”). How can the population take advantage of the Internet if they can’t even understand what’s written on it? They shouldn't be forced to learn another language just so they can know what’s going on in the world.
Colonialism turns countries into commodities, and this is also the case for their online presence. Despite Zuckerberg insisting that he only wants to help the developing world, both Facebook and Google seem to be making a huge profit off of their help. Aquila and Project Loon still have a long way to go before their finished, but neither of their creators intend to keep the projects going once they’re perfected; the companies plan to sell them to Vodafone, or other Internet service providers (Metz).
These companies only care about increasing their number of users and making as much money as they can. Even if it means taking advantage over a country that needs their help.
But what are we supposed to do? Facebook may have ulterior motives, may be violating net neutrality, but they are providing Internet services to people who hadn’t had them before. We said earlier that the world is so technologically dependent now, that Internet connection should be a basic human right. How are developing countries supposed to improve without Facebook’s or Google’s help? Isn’t a limited Internet better than none at all?
Maybe the real issue here is our perception of India. Internet.org wants to help “developing countries”, a term which, much like “net neutrality”, doesn’t have a clear definition.
So I asked my survey participants to define in their own words what makes a country qualify as “developing”. The most reoccurring qualification I received was that these are countries where citizens don’t have bare necessities or stable economies to rely on, and their government isn’t able to help them.
However, I don’t think this is the case with India. This past July, Prime Minister Modi introduced Digital India: a plan run by the Indian Government “to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy”—as stated on the programme’s website—in the next five years ( DigitalIndia.gov; Soat). Modi plans to make electronic healthcare and government services available to the public, to boost Internet access and mobile connectivity throughout India and to connect the country’s rural population to high-speed networks.
Digital India isn’t flawless, of course. The project will cost over US $17 billion to complete, and it will take some time to see it through (Soat). There have been issues with raising support for the project, which you can read more about on our blog. (http://fromscratchmedia.squarespace.com/blog-season1/56a9e337-2649-46a2-aabb-da5826d889ad?rq=eilish) The point is, however, that India and its government are capable of transforming their online presence by themselves.
That’s not to say North American companies can’t help them on their journey, but there is a huge difference between offering to help somebody and just doing all the work for them. The latter keeps growth from happening, keeps new ideas hidden. Zuckerberg would be hurting us just as much as India if Internet.org continues the way it’s been going, because we would be deprived of learning about what an online India is actually like.
And after all, it is called the 'World Wide Web' for reason.
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