Now that’s what I call viral

So here’s the Parliamentary Select Committee on DCMS’s fake news report. Rather, its report on fake news. This bit has been doing the rounds:

‘Free Basics’ is a Facebook service that provides people in developing countries with mobile phone access to various services without data charges. This content includes news, employment, health, information and local information. Free Basics is available in 63 countries around the world.82

78.Out of a 50 million population in Burma, there are 30 million monthly active users on Facebook.83 While Free Basics gives internet access for the majority of people in Burma, at the same time it severely limits the information available to users, making Facebook virtually the only source of information online for the majority of people in Burma.84 The United Nations accused Facebook of playing a determining role in stirring up hatred against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State. In March 2018, the UN Myanmar investigator Yanghee Lee said that the platform had morphed into a ‘beast’ that helped to spread vitriol against Rohingya Muslins.

Free Basics is in essence a zero-rating offer – Facey got the carriers to accept a zero data price for their own ultra-stripped down app that carries various basic Internet products including, naturally, Facebook. The carriers were willing to play because at this level it was not really realistic that the traffic would be the marginal item that would cost them any money.

Zero-rating is controversial in the industry because it amounts to an advantage for one content source over another, in other words, a net-neutrality violation. Facebook’s defence of Free Basics was that this was not so – the alternative wasn’t consuming some other service, it was not participating at all. My criticism of it was the one the Indian telecoms regulator, which eventually turned it down, pursued – it did nothing for the countries affected’s own Internet ecosystem, just distributed big brands.

But this is only part of the story. Here’s an IEEE Spectrum piece on the record-breaking rollout of the mobile networks in Myanmar/Burma (I am not sure which is acceptable now, so Stroke City it is!).

Way back when, it was a bad country and everyone was expected to have moral clarity about that. There were international sanctions and with the exception of its relationship with China, it was pretty much a pariah state. There was no media to speak of and if you were one of the few people who could both afford Internet service and was allowed it, you got it from the one highly censored operator, the post office.

I remember that when an attempted revolution broke out, all their prefixes vanished from the Internet routing table as the doors were slammed shut….until a few routes suddenly reappeared for six hours, as if el presidente had realised he couldn’t get at his Swiss online banking, or maybe as if somebody had barricaded themselves in the NOC and turned the ‘net back on until goons broke through the wall.

But then there was one of those complicated transitions by which countries like that become normal countries, with one of the slightly less bad generals in charge of a coalition government, rather like Bob Mugabe. And this meant that perhaps the last remaining greenfield mobile rollout of any size was up for grabs. Gentlemen, start your engines. In 2013, three national licences were issued to Ooredoo (ex-Qatar Telecom), Telenor, and the incumbent. The build got going in earnest the next year, Telenor leading the way by landing the first independent submarine cable, and Spectrum has the story.

Telenor, a mobile phone company based in Norway, signed up more than half a million customers on the day it launched service for the city of Yangon in October of 2014. In the 20 months since the company debuted in Myanmar, it has registered more than 16 million new mobile users.

Emerging market mobile is no stranger to rapid growth, but this was unprecedented. The closest comparison I can think of would be a virgin-field epidemic; there’s going viral for you. Suddenly they went from zero to mobile broadband and to the full advertising armamentarium of the 2014-2016 era Internet, at a three million net-adds a month clip. By 2015, 80% of Ooredoo’s subscribers there had a smartphone. It’s maybe no surprise things went wrong and they became…well, what passes for a normal country these days, with the genocidal cat memes and all.

Or maybe it is. Deployments had happened in places like the eastern DRC before but there had been nothing like the consequences described above. Something was definitely different.

The African and Latin American countries were poor, but they weren’t hermit kingdoms. Real news was available and widely consumed. Quite a few of them were democracies of varying degrees of stability. On the other hand, newspapers would have been a shock to the system here. Maybe it was the sheer speed? Maybe it was going straight to smartphones, data, and social media with retweet cascades and targeted ads? If so the finger points right at Facebook for Free Basics.

And then there’s this. I had somehow managed to forget this even though I reported on it, which says nothing good about me. Tragedies and statistics:

Newcomers to Myanmar’s mobile market Ooredoo Myanmar and Telenor Myanmar have played down the potential impact of a miscalculation of the country’s population, Mobile World Live reports. Provisional data for Myanmar’s first census in more than 30 years has revealed that the population is around 51.4 million, rather than the 60-61 million previously estimated by the government. The two new providers, who bid for their licences based on the higher figure, have dismissed any negative impact from the new data, a spokesperson for Qatari-backed cellco Ooredoo describing the situation as ‘business as usual,’ adding: ‘The country’s pent-up demand for mobile communication services has not been underestimated.’

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