Connectivity conundrum

Ludwig Siegele technology editor, The Economist

Getting people online is not an unalloyed blessing

Connectivity conundrum

2019 in brief

Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Seville 500 years ago on a voyage to circumnavigate the globe

“HALF OF World’s Population Now Online”. The headline will write itself in 2019 when, based on estimates by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency, more than 50% of humanity will have access to the internet.

Although the ITU is generous in how it defines being online (it includes anyone who has used the global network of networks within the past three months), this will be an impressive landmark. A decade ago the fraction of humanity with internet access hovered around 20%. Closing the “digital divide” between the rich world and the poor would seem to be an unalloyed blessing, for economic development in particular. Studies suggest that a 10% increase in internet penetration is correlated with a 1.35% increase in GDP for developing countries.

Naturally, the ITU and other organisations have plenty of ideas about how to push penetration rates even higher—especially as the rise in internet access has slowed recently. The UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, in a report published in September 2018, lists half a dozen recommendations for governments, including support for local digital businesses and reducing taxes on telecoms equipment. The Alliance For Affordable Internet (A4AI), an advocacy group, focuses on how the cost of access can be reduced, for instance by fostering competition and clever allocation of wireless spectrum. It thinks that governments should have the goal of bringing down costs to no more than 2% of average monthly income for one gigabyte of data—a target that is so far met by only 24 countries of the 61 covered in the group’s “Affordability Report” from 2018.

Big tech firms, too, are making efforts to bring more people online. Facebook’s Free Basics programme, for instance, is now available in 65 countries. It gives smartphone owners access to a limited selection of data-light websites and services, including Facebook and WhatsApp, the mobile messaging app it owns. These are “zero rated”, meaning they can be browsed for nothing.

Yet the internet and the social-media platforms built on top of it do not just have the potential to boost growth and development. They can also cause serious trouble. This has been much talked about in rich countries in the wake of the online misinformation campaigns that were a factor in Americans electing Donald as president and Britons voting for Brexit. But the consequences in poor countries have been more worrying.

“The problems are the same as in the West, plus more,” says Sandy Parakilas of the Centre for Humane Technology, another advocacy group. Users have often much less experience with other media, so they tend to believe more readily what they come across online. They have less choice, because the internet giants are often even more dominant in poor countries than elsewhere. (Novice users of Facebook’s Free Basics scheme may be unaware that they are seeing only a tiny, handpicked selection of websites.) These countries also typically have weaker institutions that can be more easily undermined by misinformation. And autocratic regimes are often the worst offenders in spreading “fake news”.

In Myanmar Facebook has been misused to deepen the hatred of the Rohingya minority. In the it helped Rodrigo Duterte, the populist president, get elected and he now uses it to mount smear campaigns against opponents of his bloody war on drugs. In WhatsApp has had the most profound effect. The app, which boasts more than 200m users in the country, has at times become a rumour mill. In 2017 seven men in the eastern state of Jharkhand were murdered after rumours circulated on WhatsApp warning of kidnappers in the area.

So should efforts to get more people online be slowed down until they are better equipped to handle the technology? That would be the wrong way to respond, says Mr Parakilas. As well as being paternalistic, it is unlikely to work. Even without policies to increase internet penetration, more and more people will want to go online. Keeping them from getting their hands on smartphones, whose prices continue to drop, for instance, would cause a political backlash. And blocking access to certain services is a temporary measure at best. When Sri Lanka shut down a handful of social-media services in March 2018 in an attempt to quell ethnic strife, many people turned to virtual private networks to bypass the blocks.

Policies to deal with these problems are only just emerging, says Dhanaraj Thakur of A4AI. Some existing proposals, such as improving media literacy, creating safe spaces online or taxing social-media use (as Uganda is trying to do), do not sound convincing. A more promising idea is to push online giants to change their ways. It is also part of the “Contract for the Web”, an initiative launched in November by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, which aims to keep it open.

One possibility is to make sharing content on social-media platforms less easy, for example, to slow down the spread of information (see box). Facebook has changed WhatsApp to make it harder for users to forward messages to large groups. Online firms also need to have more of a presence in the countries they serve so that they can work with the authorities to solve problems (for too long Facebook had no employees in Myanmar). Most importantly, given that misinformation often attracts a lot of attention, they need to rethink their business models, which typically involve harvesting as much of users’ attention as possible in order to resell it to advertisers.

Whatever the policy mix, the problems caused by more connectivity will not go away quickly. “This is going to get worse before it gets better,” predicts Renata Avila of the World Wide Web Foundation, a think-tank. Connectivity alone is not enough, she points out: “We have to prepare people better for what to expect.”