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“Unlikely heroes in bridging the digital divide”
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“Unlikely heroes in bridging the digital divide”

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steph-carterThe global digital landscape means technology is becoming more affordable and Internet access increasingly ubiquitous, but Steph Carter, 26, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Australia, asks whether every country is reaping the benefits. While today’s generation is likely to take up jobs that aren’t yet invented, communities and youth without Internet access face disenfranchisement from a future of economic access and growth.

The concept of the digital divide has become more complex as access to and use of computers has changed over the past few decades.

When it comes to the lack of Internet access in developing countries, a variety of reasons come to play, namely limitations in infrastructure and affordability issues. The long-term social and economic impact of the digital divide is substantial: schools are unable to teach IT skills and take advantage of the vast amount of information available on the web, and long term workforce skills development is stunted.

Numerous stakeholders, including both public and private sector, have an important role to play in closing the global digital divide. As debate continues, a suite of unlikely heroes has emerged armed with ideas, funding and influence to boot. In the case of Facebook, the current lack of Internet access for many in the developing World due to expensive mobile data isn’t so much an insurmountable challenge as a business opportunity. The digital giant’s Free Basics program is a savvy business response to a pressing global access issue, and one that could deliver both social and economic value.

In short, the Free Basics program (formerly branded as Internet.org) provides the world’s poorest communities with access to useful services on their mobile phones in markets where Internet access is less affordable. The websites are available for free without data charges, and include content like news, health, education and local information.

But is this program more about commercial gain, and less about helping the world’s disempowered? Can it be both? Simply put, could Free Basics really just be a digital land grab cloaked in altruism? The program has received some criticism during its roll out, including implications for net neutrality. On the flip side, if communities are being connected, does it matter who is doing the connecting?

steph-carter-photo-karthikfacebookFor Karthik Naralasetty, an entrepreneur with a penchant to solve real world problems through technology, Facebook’s Free Basics program is a step in the right direction, for now at least. Originally from Delhi and now based in San Francisco and working for Apple, Karthik founded Socialblood in 2011 and was involved in the Free Basics program from early on. In his home country, a lack of Internet access brings with it severe consequences.

‘”Connectivity remains a huge issue not just in India, but also across the globe. When it comes to India, I have observed that not having access to Internet in low-income groups is serious, especially when it comes to education. Inadequate access to Internet hinders children from learning tech skills that are essential in today’s day and age’,” he said.

The Free Basics remit aligned closely with that of his start up, which aims to build the largest network of blood donors, hospitals and blood banks on the web.

“Facebook works with a number of local partners, and Socialblood was one of the global partners they brought in early on. Being associated with Free Basics gave Socialblood a great boost in terms of reaching out to communities we thought we never would have. Our user base grew tremendously and blood requests got served faster than ever. We are live in 26 countries now with Free Basics, and are planning to launch in more countries later this year,”  Karthik said.

“Two weeks into launching our service on Free Basics we received a blood request from a user in Bangladesh whose wife needed three units of blood as she was undergoing a pregnancy operation. Within hours, he got his request fulfilled and number of people donated blood on time to save his wife’s life. The most unique part is this user was using the Internet for this first time in his life.”

Moving forward, the global community will no doubt watch with both interest and scepticism as programs like Free Basics expand.

For Facebook, the provision of free Internet (albeit to selected websites) must not become a walled garden. Effort must also be made to transparently communicate the nature of the program to its users; that is, that the service does not offer the Internet in its true and full form. In addition, program partnerships with the ‘Internet ecosystem’ should be carefully considered, finding a balance between Facebook’s commercial gain and the social and economic empowerment of the local communities that it services. These strategic partnerships encompass telecoms, government, the developer community, and a range of social change non-profits.

Despite some of the controversy surrounding its agenda, Facebook’s Free Basics program represents a monumental move by private companies, in this case the world’s most influential digital powerhouse, to transcend basic corporate social responsibility programs and create social impact. In today’s digital age, perhaps it’s time to embrace the method in Zuckerberg’s madness and allow him – and others – to be part of the digital divide solution.

Inset photo: Karthik Naralasetty with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, courtesy of Karthik Naralasetty

photo credit: Growing Social Media via photopin (license)  mkhmarketing.wordpress.com

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About me:

I am a young Australian working in the international aid and development sector. I am currently part of Palladium’s global marketing team, based in Brisbane. I have a particular interest in communications for development, and the use of innovative digital and communications platforms in seeking solutions to development concerns.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/

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