Angolans Turning Zero-Rated Wikipedia, Facebook Into Ad Hoc File Sharing Services

from the internet-users-continue-to-be-amazing dept

Zero-rating -- the nifty trick companies use to edge around net neutrality rules -- is being offered to developing countries as a way to provide cheap internet access to their citizens. There's a bit of altruism in the offerings, but there's also a lot of walls surrounding gardens. Facebook's "Free Basics" is a zero-rated platform that functions like a twenty-first century AOL, funneling users into Facebook's version of the internet.

Wikipedia is similarly offering zero-rated access to countries with limited internet options. It -- along with Facebook -- has partnered with a local telecom to give Angolans access to data without having to pay provider rates for it. This includes its associated properties, like its Wikimedia Commons.

Angolans have taken to this pair of walled gardens and, ingeniously, turned them into an ad hoc zero-rated Pirate Bay, as Motherboard's Jason Koebler reports.

Enterprising Angolans have used two free services—Facebook Free Basics and Wikipedia Zero—to share pirated movies, music, television shows, anime, and games on Wikipedia. And no one knows what to do about it.

Because the data is completely free, Angolans are hiding large files in Wikipedia articles on the Portuguese Wikipedia site (Angola is a former Portuguese colony)—sometimes concealing movies in JPEG or PDF files. They’re then using a Facebook group to direct people to those files, creating a robust, completely free file sharing network. A description for a Facebook group with 2,700 members reads: “created with the objective of sharing music, movies, pictures, and ANIMES via Wikimedia.”
One possible solution is no solution at all: pulling the services from Angola. No one wants to look like they're depriving impoverished citizens of what's likely their only access to the internet. On the other hand, neither entity is too thrilled to be hosting possibly infringing material. Another solution is also no solution at all: playing whack-a-mole with content and new Wikipedia/Facebook accounts.

The third solution, though, is even worse. As Koebler explains, this proposed solution is predicated on some terrible assumptions about how people must behave to "earn" internet access privileges.
Many on the listserv are framing Angola’s Wikipedia pirates as bad actors who need to be dealt with in some way so that more responsible editors aren’t punished for their actions. This line of thinking inherently assumes that what Angola’s pirates are doing is bad for Wikipedia and that they must be assimilated to the already regulated norms of Wikipedia’s community. If the developing world wants to use our internet, they must play by our rules, the thinking goes.
Playing by the rules -- which basically means curbing infringement to appease rights holders -- may be a bad thing for Angolans in the long run, even if it seems like a plausible short-term solution. The "loopholes" in these zero-rated services aren't limited to spreading pirated content. They could also serve as handy tools for activism and dissent.
Angolan's pirates are learning how to organize online, they're learning how to cover their tracks, they are learning how to direct people toward information and how to hide and share files. Many of these skills are the same ones that would come in handy for a dissident or a protester or an activist. Considering that Angola has had an autocratic leader in power for more than 35 years, well, those are skills that might come in handy one day.
Shutting down dubious uses of the services will only result in greater local control of internet access, which is the last thing the country needs. The fact that people are using a service in ways it was never intended to be used is a feature, not a bug. Erecting walls only encourages people to find ways to route around them. These are important communication tools that democratizes Angolan internet access. (To a certain extent -- citizens with funds to pay for data charges will get the "real" internet, rather than the Facebook/Wikipedia version.). And this little bit of access -- no matter how controlled and contained -- is indisputably better than nothing at all. Further limiting this use will do more damage to those using this limited access to escape government control than it will to the file sharers so aptly illustrating how futile the "walled garden" concept actually is.


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