Meta’s evolving strategy to conquer the Global South

4.5 billion people in the world have given up their privacy and freedom in order to access online services at no or low financial cost. This paper focuses on the remaining part of the population, the last 40% of the world who are still not connected to the internet (Statista). In particular, this paper will assess whether Meta’s Free Basics service succeeded in making Facebook and other Meta’s social medias the gateway to the internet in the Global South and warns about new strategies developed by Meta, especially to conquer Sub-Saharan Africa.

10 years of Free Basics, a mitigated success

Meta’s “Free Basics” initiative was launched in 2012 and is one of the most controversial initiatives undertaken by tech giants in order to (supposedly) increase connectivity in the Global South. Free Basics provides unlimited data to mobile users, but only to access a limited number of websites/apps. These obviously include Meta’s services, such as Facebook and WhatsApp? , but also a few so-called “basic services” such as Google, Wikipedia, health and food prices information.

What Zuckerberg presented as a philanthropic project to connect the Global South to the net, seemed rather at the backbone of a strategy to impose Meta as the main data-exploiter in the Global South.

It is difficult to accurately assess Free Basics’ popularity/success, given that Meta has not published any recent data on it. According to the researcher at the Stanford Center for African studies Toussaint Nothias’ own investigations, Free Basics was available in 62 countries as of July 2019, half of them located in Africa. Hence, a fair amount for countries, including the most populated ones such as Nigeria, DR of Congo, Kenya and Sudan. It had 60 million extra-users between 2016 and 2018, which is an important amount but relatively small when considering that Facebook has 2600 million users in the world and that Free Basics targeted 3500 million people. Since 2018, Meta has not communicated on the number of Free Basics’ users, which suggests that the program is not as successful as expected. Moreover, telecom companies and commentators (see here and here) say that a number of Free Basics users are not new internet users, but rather use Free Basics once they ran out of data.

Free Basics failed in India and Egypt, as well as in Uganda and Zimbabwe. In India, the project failed after a vibrant campaign accusing Meta of violating net neutrality and of digital neo-colonialist. The reasons why Free Basics was banned from Egypt, and withdrawn from Uganda and Zimbabwe, remain a little obscure. Certain analysts point to the possibility that Meta had refused to allow authoritarian governments to surveil Free Basics users or censure contents. Even though this seems to favor democracy and free speech, it shows the role that Meta is trying to acquire: the only and necessary intermediate between the state, the internet and the citizens.

Shift to infrastructure investment

Learning its lesson from the bitter Indian failure, it seems that Meta (and other tech giants such as Google and Amazon, see here) is recently focusing on investing in infrastructure projects, which are less intrusive on net neutrality than Free Basics. For instance, Meta launched the Express WI-FI initiative, now available in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Senegal and Malawi; fiber optic cables in South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria; Internet Exchange Points across the African continent; and will participate in building 2Africacable, an undersea fiber optic cable surrounding Africa. (see here)

Access to the internet begins with infrastructure. Africa lacks the network and where there is one, it is expensive to access it. As a matter of comparison, the European Court of Auditors reported that installing 5G in Europe – which already has an existing infrastructure and is 3 times smaller than Africa – will cost 450 billion US dollars – which represents 1/6th of the African GDP. Will African societies reject such investments in infrastructure because they come from American tech giants? Of course not.

That said, for the sake of net neutrality, equality and sovereignty, governments (including Chinese and European ones which should not support American tech giants’ hegemony), investment banks, the international monetary fund, the World Bank, telecom operators, antitrust authorities, and most importantly all civil society actors must make sure that new infrastructure projects are not tied to any of Meta’s (or any other private actor) services, and do not fall under the control of Meta.

Even if the use of Meta’s infrastructure is not conditioned to the use of Meta’s services, the more challenging part would be to prevent new internet users from voluntarily use Meta’s services. Even if the access to internet is neutral, Meta’s bet is that connecting people to (more) internet will automatically connect more people to Meta’s social networks/platforms. That bet is likely to succeed, partly helped by internet activists. Indeed, part of Meta’s strategy is to ally with local NGOs and digital activists (see here). In a context of internet shutdowns, lack of privacy laws, censorship and arrests of bloggers by governments, African civil actors primarily focus on freedom vis--vis their government rather than vis--vis private actors such as Meta, which presents itself as an ally of free speech and democracy.

In the Global South, Meta is thus likely to not only become a monopolistic social media provider and data extractor but will also control the infrastructure, creating complex interactions between (i) Meta, controlling both contents and potentially infrastructure, (ii) authoritarian governments practicing censorship, internet shutdowns and willing to surveil their citizens, and (iii) digital activists who see Meta as a crucial network investor improving free speech and democracy (see here), but also as a clearly self-interested corporate actor, threatening democracy around the world, willing to extract data without restrains and potentially ready to trade that data with authoritarian governments.