Network-level adblocking may be illegal in Europe and the US, but it is a direct threat to the developing world. Can the next billion look forward to a free Internet, or will dictators and tycoons control what they see?
Three months ago we warned that network-level adblocking is a risky idea in countries with a weak democratic tradition. Now our worst fears have come true. Shine is partnering with Econet, Zimbabwe’s leading mobile ISP, to deliver network-level adblocking in a corrupt country with a track record of oppression, a moribund economy and a defunct currency.
Last week: Zimbabwe police break up latest in series of protests
When ISPs give up all claim to neutrality, it can be a very small step from blocking ads to blocking “undesirable” content, especially in a country with a proven lack of respect for online freedoms.
ISP adblocking + Zimbabwe = death of online freedom?
See below for our original post about ISP adblocking from May.
ISP Adblocking Puts Net Neutrality for Next Billion at Risk
Several mobile operators have threatened to deploy adblocking measures in some European Union countries, but, as we have previously argued, ISP adblocking is unlikely to survive impending EU regulatory changes. However, the example of Digicel in the Caribbean shows that not every region has the will to resist threats to net neutrality. The rise in user support for adblocking has given ISPs the perfect excuse to finally extract even more money out of online advertising and publishing, but it could also help create a sinister future where political and intellectual freedoms are stunted before they ever have a chance to develop.
The Next Billion
3.4 billion people, or 40% of the present population of Earth, are now online.
The push to get the next billion online is coming not just from those potential users themselves or from their governments, but from the companies that have the most interest in expanding their markets, now that they have vacuumed up almost all of the developed world. Mobile devices are currently seen as key to expanding internet penetration, but so is providing coverage. Unsurprisingly, both Facebook and Google are deeply involved in projects aimed at bringing internet access to remote or developing areas.
Google is trying out a number of ways to bring wireless internet access to parts of Asia and Africa where a wired infrastructure is unfeasible. Google’s already almost insurmountable lead in the global share of internet searches will be buoyed up by a new wave of users, so it will benefit. But it is so far focusing on simply providing access, without putting limits on what can run through its systems.
Facebook’s internet.org, or Free Basics, is more controversial.
Already launched in 40 countries, some of which have the lowest penetration of internet usage worldwide, Facebook’s Free Basics delivers a limited online experience. Facebook argues that this highly-controlled environment is a good introduction to the internet and keeps data costs down, but the platform has not been welcomed everywhere.
Egypt may have rejected Free Basics because Facebook was unwilling to allow government surveillance, but India’s ban was squarely aimed at preserving net neutrality. This was largely thanks to a grassroots effort to increase awareness of how Facebook’s limited internet was more likely to help telecom operators than consumers.
This brings us back to telcos. Mobile operators have recently seen their text message revenue decline as apps allow users to avoid being charged by the character, while fixed line ISPs are still trying to find more ways to limit or monetize the success of Netflix. Over-the-top services have long been acknowledged to be a threat to operator revenues and telecom operators want their customers to foot the bill, but this is not just about entertainment.
The battle over net neutrality fought in the US and still being contested is about telco profits versus access to the open internet. In the United States, although the FCC does not see internet access as a human right and it can be argued that a lack of competition is a threat, there is enough resistance from all sides to the idea of a two-tier internet that telecom operators will be forced to fight for every concession. That is also probably going to be the case in the European Union, but concerns over net neutrality are, despite the example of India, unlikely to drum up as much support in other parts of the world.
Facebook and telecom operators each have their own reasons to want control over internet access. Telcos want their slice of the digital pie; Facebook wants to gather everyone in its walled garden. It could be argued that, if more people get online because these two sides can make more money, then the end justifies the means. But the internet is not just about getting access to social networks and messaging. Our online lives are increasingly shaping our offline lives, determining our interests and deciding our political landscape.
Control over the internet can be argued to be control over how we think. Some of this influence is down to the filter bubble created by our own preferences. Or the preferences of those charged with choosing what we see. This has always been the case with the media: reading a particular newspaper indicates and reinforces our views and even our more trivial likes or dislikes. But the internet, with its immediate and dopamine-inducing feedback, is both more powerful and less obvious.
Under the Influence
Facebook has strenuously denied that its “news curators” engaged in any manipulation and is going to great lengths to calm the fears of the GOP. But even before the news broke, there was speculation about how an entity such as Facebook, embedded so deeply in our psyches that it can control our moods, could torpedo a presidential candidate or rig an election. Much of this speculation was fueled by the Pollyhop plot in the latest season of House of Cards, but it is not difficult to imagine that some elections are so close that a little push thanks to social media could – even if not deliberate – make a big difference.
Net neutrality is not just about who makes money from providing entertainment. As the internet becomes ever more deeply embedded in our everyday lives, access to the open web has become essential if we are to enjoy political and intellectual freedom. It is easy to pay lip service to idea that internet access is a basic human right but to circumscribe access is to severely curtail that right and deliver too much invisible power to those who determine what we see.
Adblocking is becoming mainstream enough that mobile operators can now, despite the clear profit motive, argue that they are serving the interests of their customers by blocking ads before they even have a chance to reach the user. However, this opens the door for mobile and other internet providers to routinely engage in the blocking of any content. In countries with no tradition of openness, this could, combined with deliberate or even accidental content manipulation, shape the way the next billion see the world and how they choose to be governed. Closed off from any content that their internet providers deem unacceptable or an excessive burden on their networks, the next billion may experience a very different internet from the empowering open web that is their right.
Silvio Berlusconi was able to weather a number of political storms, due in no small part to his special relationship with the Italian media. When it comes to countries with low current levels of internet penetration, it is not difficult to imagine a new breed of politician emerging that truly understands how to harness the subtle power of the digital age. Combine limited internet access with constant invisible media manipulation and we could find that future dictators really are for life.