February 12

James Militzer / Kyle Poplin / Scott Anderson

Weekly Roundup: India Unfriends Facebook, Zika Shouldn’t be a Games Changer, and #IOT4D

Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ Debacle in India – Any Lessons for Social Enterprise?

Well, Mark Zuckerberg finally found out “who could possibly be against” Facebook’s plan to offer free internet to the poor. On Monday, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India blocked the company’s “Free Basics” plan, which Facebook has pitched as an effort to bring “internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn‘t have them.” The service, which is available for free to users who lack an internet data plan, has reportedly brought more than 19 million people online who otherwise would not be. It is currently operating in 38 countries, and viewed India as its next major beachhead in the developing world.

Yet its plans there ran into surprisingly fierce opposition from “net neutrality” advocates in India and around the world. Critics charged that providing certain (Facebook-approved) apps for free gives these sites an unfair advantage over other online content – and gives Facebook too much influence over the internet’s development in countries where Free Basics operates. This argument won the day with India’s regulators – in spite of Facebook’s best efforts to mobilize support for the initiative.

What went wrong? Facebook and its leadership made a number of missteps that hamstrung their efforts, and that could complicate Free Basic’s future plans:

  1. They overplayed the humanitarian element of their motives, going so far as to initially brand the initiative as “” – making it sound like a charity rather than the quasi-charitable business play that it actually was.
  2. In response to concerns that Facebook might leverage inordinate power in the countries that accept Free Basics, the company responded by … leveraging inordinate power in the public debate around the issue. It launched an overly-aggressive campaign to build public support for the service, entreating Facebook’s 130 million Indian users to pressure regulators to approve it.
  3. Facebook’s leaders, from Zuckerberg to its surprisingly hapless board member Marc Andreessen, bungled their efforts to respond to criticism of Free Basics. In his now-famous Times of India editorial, Zuckerberg seemed disingenuously bewildered that anyone could possibly object to Facebook’s pure-hearted plans. And Andreessen managed to outrage billions with a single (now deleted) tweet, below, which seemed to frame the service as a form of benevolent colonialism – leading to somewhat panicked damage control from everyone involved.


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But Andreessen’s snark about colonialism, though ham-handed and easily misunderstood, gets at the core question behind this whole debacle – and one that’s relevant to the social enterprise movement: To what extent should emerging economies be suspicious of foreign businesses offering to improve people’s quality of life in ways that enhance their own bottom line? Facebook has a point about Free Basics: it’s serving a real need, and online access has tangible benefits for the poor. In countries where local businesses and governments can’t provide full Internet access, is it really that bad for foreign companies to step in – even if profit is part of their motive, and even if their presence stymies the growth of local competitors? In a country like India, with just 131 million broadband connections for a population of over 1.25 billion, should concerns about net neutrality take precedence over the pressing need to get more people online? Feel free to share your views in comments.

– James Militzer


Will Zika take the gold in Rio?

It started with a few whispers about canceling the Olympic Games set to begin in Rio on Aug. 5. Gradually, those whispers grew louder. Then it turned into this:

“To host the Games at a site teeming with Zika, an outbreak the World Health Organization has labelled a ‘public health emergency of international concern,’ is, quite simply, irresponsible. The IOC needs to either move the Games, postpone them, or cancel them.” That’s what Arthur L. Caplan, head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center, and Lee H. Igel, an associate professor in the Tisch Institute at New York University, wrote for Forbes.

That’s a step too far, however, for medical journalist Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases and public health specialist, who wrote this week in Sports Illustrated that canceling the Games is alarmist and sends the wrong message. The Ebola outbreak had a ‘crippling’ impact on the economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, not least because of disruptions in travel and cross-border trade as well as decreased foreign investment. Even in the case of Ebola, travel bans were unjustified and could well have backfired. For the vast majority playing in and attending the Games, Zika is not a significant public health threat. They should be more worried about dengue, influenza and sexually transmitted infections, none of which are new.”

Zika is merely the latest public health issue in Rio and Brazil. Depressed oil prices have left the country in its deepest recession since the 1930s and, according to NPR, state hospitals are the most visible signs of despair. An example: A woman reportedly gave birth on a sidewalk in Rio recently because a hospital couldn’t afford to admit patients.

A byproduct of the poverty, and a big part of the public health conundrum, is that sewage from 66 percent of Rio’s homes goes untreated. That results in breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitos. “For decades, we have been advocating for improvements in sanitation as the number one priority for public investments here,” community organizer José Martins told Public Radio International PRI, “while the government has insisted on flashier interventions that do not save money on health care costs down the line.”

The flashiest of those interventions is the Olympic Games, which will cost Brazil more than $13 billion that it clearly can’t afford. But nearly all that money has already been spent. Lest it be wasted, the country needs to capitalize on the influx of visitors and attendant publicity the Games and the following Paralympics will generate. (They’re expected to attract 15,000 athletes, 45,000 volunteers, 93,000 staff and 380,000 visitors.) That might not be enough to get Brazil out of its economic hole, but it’s a great reason for the Games to go forward. It might even be enough to open a few hospital doors in the process.

This is a complex debate that could be framed in many ways. Here’s how it might be thought of in terms of public health: If Zika “wins” and the Games are canceled, that might well come at the expense of long-term public health in Brazil. In other words, no one will end up standing atop the podium.

– Kyle Poplin


Your New Favorite Hashtag #IoT4d

I’m a Twitter nerd. And, as such, it’s a thrill to learn about a new hashtag and this could be one of those ground floor hashtags you’ll want to check out. I recently was introduced to #IoT4d, which stands for the “Internet of Things for Development.” (Hat tip to Glen Burnett @originalglen).

We keep hearing about the Internet of Things, the catch-all term for smart infrastructure and devices that all talk with one another – all at once and all the time – and how big it’s getting or about to get. When it comes to the phenomena, we tend to get stuck on consumer products like refrigerators that tell you when it’s time to order milk, self driving cars, or camera-embedded doorbells that live stream video of whomever is at your door direct to your phone. (This presumably enables consumers to tell door-to-door solicitors to get lost, whether it’s from the comforts of home or from the other side of the planet).  

All that is great, all that is exciting, but what’s more great and more exciting is how the Internet of Things is starting to impact development. And it’s no longer the “let’s wait for the technology to trickle down” situation; IOT4D is happening on smartphones and old feature phones alike, across new economies, argues Wayan Vota, senior mobile advisor at TechLab, in the video talk below. Vota, who describes himself as an Digital Development Entrepreneur, provides a guided tour of how the sensors driving IOT4D are being creatively being deployed by the people who are affected by development. His talk might make you a believer:

(Incidentally, about a year ago NB Health Care Editor Kyle Poplin profiled Rhythm Diagnostic Systems, maker of the sensor enabled bandages featured briefly in the presentation. For a closer look, check out Wireless Warning: Firm behind Band-Aid-like wearable joins Ebola fight, eyes other markets.

– Scott Anderson


Image credit: Charis Tsevis, Flickr.

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