No one should be denied understanding of their human rights just because they can’t afford a mobile data plan. Now women in Zambia won’t be, as Facebook and Internet.org’s new app gives them free Internet connection for accessing women’s rights resources like MAMA (Mobile Alliance For Maternal Action), WRAPP (Women’s Rights App), and Facts For Life by UNICEF.
Facebook worked with Zambian carrier Airtel and local governments to identify the need for these resources and bake them into Internet.org. But as the app gets rolled out in more countries around the globe, Facebook could cause tension with governing regimes that have historically oppressed women. And that’s a fight worth fighting.
“’Women’s access to technology – and their ability to use it to shape and drive change in their communities – is critical to gender equality” says Global Fund for Women’s President and CEO Musimbi Kanyoro. “This technology will give voice to millions of people, including women, in Zambia, Africa and the whole world, and empower them to share ideas, drive innovation, and build more inclusive and democratic societies.”
The Internet.org app launched this week in Zambia, its first country, as a standalone Android app, a tab in the Facebook for Android app, and as a mobile website available on the feature phones most Zambians carry. It gives free access to a limited set of Internet services including Facebook, Wikipedia, and Google Search, as well as local info on weather, jobs, government, and human rights. Airtel subsidizes this free access because the app proves the value of the Internet to people, some of whom may buy data plans through it to reach the rest of the web.
MAMA provides critical health information to new and expectant mothers. Facts For Life offers tactical tips for handling pregnancy, childbirth, childhood illnesses, and childcare. And WRAPP lets Zambian women learn about what their rights are, what legislation protects those rights, and what to do if their rights are violated. For example, a woman could find out that she has equal rights to education, as protected by the Education Act of 2011 [Cap 1, Section 22], and can contact The National Legal Aid Clinic For Women if that right is violated.
The former US Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer says that “Through Internet.org, women in Zambia will have greater access to vital information and needed services to improve their lives and the lives of their children.”
The Zambian government has been supportive of the project, but Internet.org could face friction in other parts of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, or the Middle East where gender discrimination is more institutionalized. Facebook has endured censorship in the past by governments that oppose social media and some types of content due to “moral concerns”, including Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia as well as China. Some have lifted their bans, but purposefully giving free access to information that could encourage women and other disadvantaged groups to call for more freedom could potentially invoke governmental ire.
These situations could draw a fine line for Facebook to walk, where it doesn’t want to get its social network banned, leaving users in the lurch, but wants to empower people through the Internet. Hopefully Facebook will do everything it can to make sure these human rights resources are available in the places they’re needed most. Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, says “This technology will empower countless women to make a positive impact on their societies and the world.”
Mark Zuckerberg pushed to start Internet.org because he says “I believe connectivity is a human right.” Empowerment through information can cause temporary destabilization and hardship, as we saw with the Arab Spring. But while these may be the growing pains of humanitarian progress, access to knowledge should help us emerge as a more just species.