No Such Thing as Free Internet

In October of 2021, Google announced that it would invest $1 billion into African internet infrastructure over five years[1]. On March 18th of this year, the first phase of this project was announced: Equiano, a subsea cable owned by Google and initially conceptualized in 2019, will connect internet users in Togo. Among the promises associated with the new cable are doubled internet speeds and 37,000 newly-created jobs[2]. But Google isn’t a digital fairy godmother motivated by pure altruism. The African internet economy, otherwise known as e-conomy, is predicted to be worth $180 billion by 2025, and Google undoubtedly wants a slice of the pie[3].

Despite what Google’s motives may be, there do seem to be tangible benefits to be found in this exchange. Africa experiences the lowest connectivity rate of any region in the world[4]. This cable will benefit millions of Togolese people, and eventually provide service to Nigeria, Namibia, and South Africa as well[5]. According to the current plan, the cable should be entirely operable by the second half of 2022[6]. It’s also true that Google, in its capacity as a web service, is committed to net neutrality, or the principle that internet providers must treat all internet communications equally[7]. Assuming that these values are maintained when Google acts as a broadband provider, this could bolster online discourse and contribute to the free exchange of ideas. However, there are two things to remain mindful of as this investment unfolds: internet surveillance performed by the government and corporate monopoly over the internet.

First, though Google may stand by its mission statement, authoritarian regimes have a history of attempting to control big tech in order to carry out censorship and surveillance. Multiple local tech firms saw pressure to remove disparaging imagery of Xi Jinping and testimony from Uyghurs surrounding detention centers. As for larger companies, Twitter saw pressure from India to remove protest-related content and criticisms[8]. Even if tech companies do not comply, provision of the internet is not adequate protection of internet freedom. Some experts assert that the internet is a “surveillance state”; governments hear and see more than ever before, and data can be used to continually track unfavorable behavior[9]. The consequences for digital actions can be analog, including arrests or worse[10]. 

Togo will see great economic benefit from increased internet involvement, but it is not particularly democratic. The current president, Faure Gnassingbé, has held the position since 2005. Before him, his father ruled for more than four decades[11]. Multi-party systems underneath an autocrat maintain power by preventing the formation of meaningful opposition. It is well within the realm of possibility that the regime will keep a watchful eye on the country’s new internet users. It is unclear at this point what steps Google has taken, or will take, to protect these users. 

Secondly, there are the internal motivations of Google. Many of the major tech companies have managed to exert special monopolistic control over less economically developed countries. For example, Facebook offered free mobile internet access to India, but in exchange for unique control over the mobile internet experience[12]. When Google connects millions of users to the internet, it also makes itself privy to some of their internet use data, and “concentration of data is concentration of power” [13].

The dangers that accompany a Google-owned internet connection are daunting, but the benefits of having access to the internet are certainly worth it. With the internet, citizens can pick up new skills, indulge in new art, and read articles from individuals who live outside of their own countries, such as this one. The Equiano cable has the potential to make a profoundly positive effect, but its costs cannot be ignored.

On your first day of introductory microeconomics, your professor will tell you that “there’s no such thing as free lunch.” There’s no such thing as free internet either. As Africa extracts the benefits of Google’s new investment project, it’s important that the world keeps careful track of how Google will receive a return on its investment.

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