While we often hear complaints that U.S. Internet access speeds lag behind countries like South Korea, Japan, and parts of Europe, it’s easy to forget that some areas of the world have little or no access to the online resources we take for granted.
In the global broadband speed league, countries in Africa lag far behind those on other continents, for example, and that’s only counting those consumers who can actually get connected in the first place.
That lack of connectivity is a driving force behind initiatives like Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s internet.org, which operate under the banner of altruism – delivering the Internet to those without the means or infrastructure to access it – but do offer clear benefits to the companies behind them. As Microsoft experienced for many years with Internet Explorer antitrust accusations, any attempt to be the sole portal through which a high proportion of consumers access the web is viewed dimly by regulators.
Highlighting that fact, questions have been raised in recent months about the intentions of internet.org in India, and whether Facebook is violating net neutrality by creating what many see as its own “walled garden” of Internet activity. Telephone companies are heading up this criticism, concerned that their services will be undermined by this low-cost alternative.
In Africa, by contrast, regulation is not as extensive as India, and the market for connected technology less developed. This leaves plenty of wiggle room for Facebook to insert itself as a primary provider of connectivity, with all the boosts that brings to its user base in countries across the continent.
But the question remains, is this a true connection to the Internet or just a window to Facebook’s take on what the web should be?
The company will, of course, argue that some connection is better than none, and they might be right. Even so, further issues arise when copyright enters the equation, as the continent has a significant piracy problem and Facebook is a part of that. Where as in North America we don’t really associate the main social networks with copyright infringement (early issues with Twitter’s Periscope service notwithstanding), links to unlicensed song downloads are frequently posted by bloggers in countries like Nigeria, where piracy is reportedly more common than legitimate music services.
If Facebook’s version of a connected world is going to become a reality, they clearly have questions to answer about the extent of that connectivity and the content that they allow to flow through it. It will be a tricky balancing act between providing wider access while restricting the availability of content that infringes international copyright. It must also convince existing providers and regulators that this type of service doesn’t give Facebook, or any other dominant Internet company, a backdoor monopoly to online access in countries where there are still large segments of consumers to win.
Stepping back for a moment, however, what many see as a concern could easily be turned into opportunity.
If legitimate content services partner with initiatives aiming to bring connectivity to new areas, good habits can be formed early on and piracy alternatives pushed to the margins of online access. Where as pirates got the jump on legal platforms in more developed markets – think Napster serving up music downloads years before Apple launched iTunes – those who provide reliable connections to get new users online can learn from those lessons and present legal content options to them from day one.
The race for Internet providers to enter developing markets is well and truly underway and, as always, the fight to protect copyright and curb piracy will be right behind it.