A Glimpse into the Non-Open Internet

On Tuesday Sam Altman posted a great piece on the importance of keeping the Internet open. My company Numida is based in Uganda where there isn’t Net Neutrality, giving a glimpse into what a non-Open Internet looks like.

Two Internets

In Uganda there are two classes of mobile data (or MBs as data is colloquially known) — the all-access data that most of us are used to and another class of mobile data called the “social bundle”. Social bundles are cheaper, but only give access to WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook (appropriately referred to as WTF on MTN’s marketing page).

Social Bundles only give you access to WTF

In Uganda the non-open Internet is not just about data from some sites being slower than others; many people simply don’t have access to the majority of the Internet. Furthermore they often don’t realize that when they buy social bundle data they aren’t getting access to the all of the Internet, but just to WTF.

Two Internets vs an Unequal Internet

Numida is a financial management app that allows small businesses to easily track and improve their finances and requires access to the full Internet. A single, but unequal Internet would be bad enough for us. Our users would pay more to access our services and we would have to be a little bit better to convince people to pay that little bit more. Unfortunately the situation with two Internets is much worse. Not only do users pay more for access, they also have to understand the difference between these two Internets and choose to purchase credit towards both. This is especially worrisome for innovation in countries where affordable Internet access is relatively new. The Internet becomes synonymous with the WTF services in the social bundle.

Because of the price difference and the fact that most new Internet users are primarily interested in the WTF products they buy social bundles more frequently than paying for access to the full Internet. We also see evidence of the confusion between the two. If users tell us that yes, they have MBs but our app is not saving data it is almost certainly because they bought a social bundle and don’t have full Internet access.

Impacts On Product

Our product doesn’t compete directly with WTF but the impact of Uganda’s two Internets isn’t limited to the increased friction for our users. Since Facebook and WhatsApp MBs are cheaper and users are more likely to have them at any given time it’s tempting for us to try take advantage of this. The way to do that would be integrating messaging with WhatsApp or building a chatbot in Facebook messenger. This helps us in the short-term but locks us into those platforms and strengthens the case that users just need Facebook because everyone is integrating there anyways. This is one way in which the non-open version of the Internet not only protects incumbents against their competitors but also shapes the entire product ecosystem. Thinking about building a direct competitor to any of these services is even more daunting.

Make the Internet Open (Everywhere)

I’ll echo the words of so many others in saying that the free and open Internet is something we can’t stop fighting for — not only keeping it that way in the parts of the world where it already is, but making it that way where it already is not. A non-open Internet stifles innovation and is just plain confusing for users. As Numida grows I hope our products will support the open Internet by showing people that there is more out there than just WTF. If you’re working on anything related to the open Internet in sub-Saharan Africa I’d love to hear from you — send me a note at ben@numidatech.com.