At first it may seem like Facebook and Google’s moves to cover the data cost of using their respective services in developing countries are admirable attempts to bring the Internet to the less fortunate, but the truth is a bit darker. The primary goal is actually to secure more customers, which is more neutral than bad, but the bad comes from the fact that this could quite possibly stifle tech innovation in these nations at the same time.
Google and Facebook are at the forefront of a scramble to win over new African Internet users, offering freebies they say give a leg-up to the poor but which critics argue is a plan to lock in customers on a continent of 1 billion people. Africa’s Internet penetration will reach 50 percent by 2025 and there are expected to be 360 million smartphones on the continent by then, roughly double the number in the United States currently, Mckinsey Consultants data shows. Africa had 16 percent Internet penetration and 67 million smartphones in 2013. This growth is attracting interest from Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Wikipedia, which are striking deals with service providers such as Vodacom, MTN, Bharti Airtel and Safaricom to offer users free, or ‘zero-rated’ access to their sites and services. Facebook, through its Internet.org program, offers a stripped-down version of its social network and some other sites for free in what it says is an exercise to “connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have Internet access”.