Should (and can) Facebook be Regulated?

One of the hottest topics debated by attendees at this week’s ITU Global Symposium for Regulators is how to connect the other half of the globe’s population. The big question, of course, is who’s going to pay for it?

The bill is going to be high. Elsewhere in the world, the World Bank has advocated for what they call an Africa ‘moon shot’, a project who scope is as ambitious as the American effort to land the first man on the moon. This one aims to make broadband internet available to everyone in Africa.

It looks like tens of billions of dollars will be allocated, when all is said and done.

But the Secretary General of the ITU told to Symposium that his experts estimate that US $450 billion would be required to connect the next 1.5 billion people. But, he said, telecoms magnate Carlos Slim subsequently told him that it could cost two or three times that much.

Who has money like that? A lot of eyes are turning to the internet platforms which have created some of the richest people in the world, and whose dominance is being felt even in the remotest corners of the globe.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Google, e-commerce giants Amazon and Alibaba, and content providers such as Netflix and Youtube are all growing by leaps and bounds—and raising as much ire as adulation for their efforts.

Where consumer infrastructure is concerned, most of the costs are borne by telcos and related companies. And some of them aren’t doing too badly either. The money they’re sinking into new infrastructure is massive. An AT&T executive told the Symposium that his company had invested over US $150 billion in recent years, and is still turning a solid profit.

Digicel has invested about a billion dollars in the Pacific since its inception, says General Counsel for Asia Pacific Jeremy Birks. He says the company is happy to pay its way, and only wishes that others would do so too.

That message has found a sympathetic audience. Prime Minister Charlot Salwai echoed their call to subject digital content providers, called Over The Top services, to taxing and regulation. “Maybe we need to regulate OTT in the country,” he told a press conference, “It’s a concern that has been raised by many others in the world.”

“They operate freely,” he said. “For example Facebook. They do not pay any rates, and I think in the future we should regulate how these OTTs should contribute to build infrastructure or assist with how we develop ICT in this country.”

His concerns are not limited only financing the developing world’s last mile, but also to the impact these insurgents are having on remote societies, some of whom are using communications technology for the first time in their lives.

Earlier this year, Acting Prime Minister Christophe Emelee met with Facebook executives at their Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore, to discuss ways to more closely cooperate on content moderation. He reiterated Vanuatu’s support for free speech, but deplored the lack of accountability among social media commenters.

The Internet Society has for decades been a champion of an unregulated and borderless internet. The fundamental design of the Internet, it says, is to facilitate direct and unmediated communication between any two parties, no matter where they are in the world. They argue that the internet exports freedom wherever it’s found.

But whether we want it or not, that’s changing. Rajnesh Singh is ISOC’s regional bureau director for the Asia Pacific region. A Fijian, he is intimately aware of the challenges faced by Pacific island societies in particular. Things don’t look good, he told the Daily Post. “The internet is under severe threat, not by any one actor, but by multiple actors all at the same time.”

He counts national regulation as one of the forces that’s antithetical to the basic design of an unmediated end to end network.

Facebook and other platform representatives were present at the Symposium, but declined to speak to media on the record.

They did, however, engage in a spirited defence of the status quo during plenary discussions. Dr Robert Pepper is head of Global Connectivity Policy for Facebook. A former regulator (he worked for years at the USA’s Federal Communications Commission), he claims familiarity with the turf.

He beat back most arguments using a long-standing defence that innovators shouldn’t be saddled with legacy business models. Burdening digital platforms with use-based payment models would effectively stifle invention, new technology development and uptake. In essence, he argued that it would only increase costs for consumers and line the telco’s pockets.

People lobbying for the platforms suggested to the Daily Post that this entire conversation was motivated by the parent Digicel’s dire financial situation. Earlier this year, the company dodged an existential bullet, announcing that the overwhelming majority of bond-holders had agreed to defer payment on US $3 billion in what Moody’s called ‘distressed’ debt.

The Irish Times reported that “Digicel, which operates in 31 markets across the Caribbean and South Pacific regions, is saddled with about $6.7 billion of debt.”

Connecting the ‘other’ 3.5 billion people on this planet is a noble goal, but as always, the developing world is struggling to gain traction on the slippery slope of poverty.

Facebook’s Robert Pepper told the Symposium that research that showed not only were the lowest income countries not advancing, they are losing ground as mid- and high-income countries accelerated their technological uptake.

This is known as the Red Queen problem. Named after a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, it describes how she has to run at top speed just to keep still. The Queen tells Alice, “you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Vanuatu is doing all the running it can do, and has done better than most Pacific island countries in connecting its tiny, dispersed and remote communities. As the host of this year’s Global Symposium for Regulators, it showcased state of the art internet services for the attendees.

But hundreds of millions of dollars more will be needed to bring the nation’s communications standards in line with the rest of the world. And while the wealthy stakeholders bicker over a relative pittance, this nation—and the entire developing world—falls further and further behind.