Internet is not just about social media; it’s also about democracy

Saturday May 25 2024

There are countries that consider the internet a utility. I have heard voices here and there advocating its provision as a right. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


Last week it was imperative to raise the issue of the way Tanzania dropped off the internet altogether. Surely! That has got to be some level of national security issue.

This is Africa, and this is 2024. As the world hurtles higgledy-piggledy towards environmental disaster and other forms of chaos hinted at by conflicts and overwhelming economic equality, surely it has become second nature for us to have a plan A, B, C through to at least H for everything. Including something as fundamental as the internet.

I noted that our neighbours got back online very fast, having had good sense to make sure their economic and social activities were not disrupted for too long. Remember: Mobile money is essentially a Kenyan invention and a gift to the world.

I could tell you hair-raising tales about The Great Unbanked before mobile money came along, but that is an economic story for another day. I want to talk about access and connection.

Read: EYAKUZE: How did EA get booted off the face of the digital sphere?

A couple of years ago, I noticed something a bit off. Once in a while, if I asked someone if they could search something real quick on their phone or if they had an internet connection, they would assure me that they did… and proceed to ask me who I wanted to look up on a social media platform. This was confusing at first, until I remembered that Mark Zuckerberg struck a deal, maybe a decade ago, to help service providers offer his social media platform for “free” to us Developing Countries consumers.


It is an open secret that we The Poors are a very lucrative market. What appeared to be a generous — even philanthropic — gesture on the surface was also very clearly a smart move to recruit in markets that other platform considered to be beneath their notice. Even though we are billions.

Long story short, today there are many Tanzanians who think that when you talk about the internet, you mean that very narrow band of social media sites, most of which are the property of Mr Zuckerberg.

We got captured. Again.

Local service providers offer social bundles to “help people stay connected” at an “affordable price.”

Guess what you can’t connect to via a social bundle? The actual internet itself, the one where resources like Wikipedia and websites reside. And you know who used social media the most? Both ends of the demographic spectrum.

So, grandchildren and their grandparents together are being encouraged to miss the richness of the internet phenomenon by having their experience restricted to a very narrow part of online life.

Meanwhile, as the elections approach, our governments are starting to get restive about all this free communication and putting barriers in place — such as a regulation that restricts the use of Virtual Personal Networks (VPNs) — that essentially allow people privacy online.

Consider the utility of putting such a regulation in place if you are a government that is also known to switch off social media and sometimes even the internet deliberately during the elections. This is the context in which some of us are worrying about expanding internet access to everyone, in support of democracy. So, we’re going to have to talk about that next: The Internet Kill Switch.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email [email protected]