As part of their efforts to increase their global reach, US tech corporations are investing in a range of connectivity projects across the Global South. One of the most notorious ones is Facebook’s Free Basics initiative. As the initiative was being rolled out in India in 2015, a group of local activists forcefully opposed it. They argued that it violated the principle of net neutrality. After a year-long and highly publicized national debate, the Indian regulator decide to ban Free Basics and other similar offers. This ban was widely perceived as a massive victory for digital rights activists in India and beyond. To many observers, it signaled the end of the Free Basics project globally. However, despite this backlash, the project kept expanding around the world. From reportedly 30 countries in early 2016, it went on to become available in 65 countries in 2019, including 30 on the African continent.
The project aims to answer two sets of questions:
- Why didn’t we see more pushback across African countries like the one in India? Why wasn’t there more of a spillover effect from the India debate to these other parts of the world?
- What does the history of Free Basics in Africa tell us about civil society’s reliance on, and resistance to, tech corporations?
The project involves reviewing a range of documents including: promotional material, earning calls transcripts, business prospectus from Facebook and partner telecom companies; reports from civil society organizations; news articles and blog posts; scholarly publication from a variety of fields related to Facebook connectivity projects, including law, development, STS, engineering, and communication. In addition, it includes a quantitative analysis of global news coverage of Free Basics using MIT’s Media Cloud, and which decisively shows a peak of attention around India and then a lack of media attention. I also developed an innovative VPN-based method to independently assess the availability of Free Basics across the African continent. Lastly, the research draws on informal interviews with various African digital rights activists.
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 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.