On the 10th of May, 2016, Facebook launched its new Initiative, Free Basics in Nigeria in partnership with Airtel Nigeria. Free Basics according to the founder of Facebook, is an open platform that gives developers from around the world the opportunity to make their services and websites available free of cost to those who cannot afford Internet access. The Initiative is already operational in more than 40 countries half of which are African countries. This Initiative tends to provide a platform for innovations in the Nigerian ICT sector which is dubbed as a hotbed of ideas in Africa.
At Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, we are committed to social entrepreneurship through the veritable tool of ICT in Nigeria – we hold as our core objectives the utilization of socio-economic opportunities embedded in ICT especially for Nigerian youths who are the best resources for brilliant and innovative ideas. Based on this background, platforms that further these objectives are of interests to PIN hence the news of Free Basics in Nigeria being projected to help with these objectives becomes an interest.
However, as part of PIN’s commitment to the maximization of ICT opportunities in Nigeria, we are very much aware of the need to conduct this maximization within the fringes of what is fair, just and equitable. Even though Free Basics promises to offer some of the Internet to those with none of the Internet, some of the Internet is not all of the Internet and the wish of founders of the Internet is for all of the Internet to be available to all of the people. Critical analysis of the internal workings of Free Basics in countries where it is being implemented ironically shows that Internet access is tacitly being denied by the Initiative as the App tends to promote user stratification on the Internet. Giving half Internet is like giving half (“public”) education. For example, only subscribers on an Internet Service Provider Facebook partners with will enjoy these free services to the exclusion of others – it is unfair to list some services and exclude their competition. Also, it is a failed argument that the “poor” cannot pay for Internet. The “poor” prioritise to pay when infrastructure gaps are taken care of sustainably, particularly by smart governments which unfortunately the Nigerian State has been in want of and it can even be argued that the “poor” spend more on phone units than the “middle” class people because they cannot save money by buying bulk airtime that qualifies for perks. Free Basics is not open access to the Internet as being touted by Facebook. This is one of many issues as far as Free Basics is concerned.
From a digital rights advocacy perspective, Free Basics is a pseudo-Zero rating practice which segregates the Internet space for pure commercial purpose and not as a social intervention initiative. The very foundation of equality on the Internet is prejudiced by Free Basics. Free Basics is what happens in a country like Nigeria when government with all the might of state resources mismanage resources instead of judicious application of available resources to provide to meet needs such as the Digital gap in the system.
It is important to also note the lifeless attributes of most government parastatals in delivering on their original mandates of providing services to the development of the various sectors they superintend over. For example, the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) domiciled under the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has not in any way developed in its mandate to encourage the development of ICT especially in rural areas in Nigeria. It is not surprising that only a negligible percentage of Nigerians are aware of the Fund. These are some of the issues that surround the introduction of Free Basics in a country like Nigeria. Facebook is clearly using this as a marketing strategy so it’s not as much a social intervention as it is an opportunity to get more people to use their service and become part of their product offering
Even though the Nigerian ICT sector requires the jerks of initiatives like Free Basics to help stimulate its development, we should not be too excited about it as it leaves so much to be desired as it offends our convictions on what is fair, just and equitable. As it stands now, it is hard to pitch an argument against Free Basics without being pelted with stones and argued against on the strength of arguments that says “some of the Internet is better than none of the internet”. However, for every right thinking member of every society, it is a notorious belief, that whatever is great, however noble, so far as it overrides equality in any form, has lost its good essence.
In the light of this, it is high time international and local stakeholders in the Internet society demanded for a more inclusive debate on Free Basics in Nigeria and by extension in other countries. This is a call on the Nigerian government to wake up to its responsibilities especially as it concerns the ICT Sector as Free Basics in Nigeria is what happens when a community is capable of maximizing its resources but chooses not to do so and opens its citizens to preventable exploitative manipulations of profit-driven entities.
Tomiwa Ilori @tomiwa_ilori is Program Assistant (ICT Policy) at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria
‘Boye Adegoke @adeboyeBGO is Program Manager (ICT Policy) at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria