By Johnson Kanamugire
Facebook, worlds largest social media network owned by US-based Meta, turns 20 on February 4. If it were a landmass, it would be world's most populous nation boasting more than 3 billion inhabitants in total.
Mark Zuckerberg, the man who founded the platform from a Harvard dormitory, would be the wealthy king at its helm, and not satisfied.
He knows that powerful states, just like companies, do crumble, and he is keen on embarking on new and questionable venture to conquer the future, one that hinged on amassing new users, especially in light of a series of scandals over user data handling that pitted his firm against its user base from the global North.
Facebook has faced scrutiny, criticisms, and lawsuits posing a challenge to the company. But it has expanded in recent years with the acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram, even as it faces competition of rivals – the likes of TikTok, YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat.
However, combining the above factors could explain Facebook’s questionable scramble for new users in the global South and Africa in particular. This is a market it has aggressively moved to conquer since around 2016, with initiatives that centred around catering for the needs of millions in areas without good internet connectivity.
The platform already led surge in social media use in Africa, revolutionising the way individual entrepreneurs, businesses and companies operate. It created avenues for online marketplaces and promotion of products and services beyond borders.
Content creation followed suit in leveraging its use, and has paved the way for innovation, offering potential to transform economies, on top of connecting communities in ways that promoted free speech.
However, issues such as social media restrictions in some countries and widespread connectivity problems still deny many people access.
Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, accounts for majority of the global digital divide with 59% mobile internet usage gap, according to GSMA, the global mobile phone operator lobby group.
Facebook embarked on the scramble for users in this part of the globe with 'goodies' and connectivity schemes that promise to connect all the unconnected.
In its ambitions, however, it barely addressed ethics and privacy questions that raised hell previously in parts of the West. This explains the debacle that would befall its attempt to launch its not-so-philanthropic Free Basics initiative in India in 2016, which it would later export to Africa.
To digital rights activists in India, the initiative which comprises of both an application and website that provides free of charges access to a variety of services, hid a digital colonialism agenda.
It allows the firm to harvest as much data as possible through traffic and activity of everyone who relies on it and its sister platforms for interaction, messaging and others.
How the same initiative came to be rolled out in Africa unopposed and without scrutiny is what puzzles digital rights activists to date.
To the initiative, Facebook added a set of digital connectivity infrastructure projects: the largest subsea cable to cover the whole continent on one hand, and on the other a satellite to beam internet to remote parts of the continent where internet connectivity is lacking or non-existent.
Lack of scrutiny makes it hard to know the exact extent of performance of these projects, but one thing is clear:
The connectivity projects make Facebook the equivalent of an internet service provider, laying ground for the social network giant to exercise control over digital connectivity infrastructure and user data for now and an unpredictable time in the future.
It is the highest possible amount and detail of user data collected which guarantees the firm continued dominance and wealth through advertising.
Facebook is not alone in this. Google, OneWeb, Elon Musk’s StarLink, and Amazon have also been involved in similar scramble for Africa with investments to provide affordable broadband, all in the name of plugging acute digital infrastructure gaps and digital divide.
Facebook may be succeeding in its scramble for new users in Africa partly due to its massive marketing campaign that saw Mark Zuckerberg win over regulators.
The global tech giants also exploit prevailing legislation loopholes about personal data protection whereby such laws are inexistent in several African countries while there are inefficiencies in enforcement in others.
Local administration’s failure to address predominant digital infrastructure deficiencies themselves at desired pace sees politicians buy into projects of this nature at face value.
However, ethics and privacy aspects should not be overlooked. It is wrong for any country to entrust critical digital infrastructure with data-hungry global tech giants without well thought-out mechanisms of accountability.
To stop digital colonialism from taking shape, there is need for serious scrutiny of these investments in the context of ethics of digitisation and interests of the African citizens.
The author, Johnson Kanamugire, is a Rwandan writer specializing in public-interest journalism.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.
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