The Race for Global Internet Access Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

The Race for Global Internet Access Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

The Race for Global Internet Access Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Payal Arora’s The Next Billion Users turns a critical eye to the humanitarian push to connect the globe.


In July 1997, Wired magazine published a dizzying prediction of the present. “The Long Boom: A History of the Future, 1980–2020,” which was later expanded into a book, imagines the Internet as a primary engine in a global-spanning networked society on the path to eradicating poverty around the world. The magazine’s cover splashed a bold provocation: “We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?”

Nearly 25 years later, the Internet is indeed—slowly but surely—on its way to enveloping the globe. Still, around half of the world’s population remains offline, and adoption rates have slowed in recent years. Substantive gaps in access and affordability persist along racial and economic lines. But the Internet is far from a first-world phenomenon nowadays. Facebook’s largest user population is in India (Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico are also in the top five), where T-Series, a record label and film-production company, has recently unseated PewDiePie as the most-subscribed YouTube channel. And, according to UNICEF, in Nigeria, more people have access to cell phones than toilets.

This demographic development is no accident. A constellation of varying interests has been battling to connect the planet for decades, often with the rationale that it could serve as a backdoor fix to problems of economic scarcity. But how much can we really expect Internet access to reconfigure a broken superstructure? Despite the Internet’s looming ubiquity, the old problems remain. Nearly half the world subsists on less than $5.50 a day, and 26 billionaires control as much wealth as that entire population combined.

It’s easy to scoff at the naive utopianism of the 1990s dot-com bubble, a time when Internet-adoption rates were doubling annually and the collapse of the Soviet Union lent plausible cover to a worldwide Fukuyaman endgame. But remnants of this ideology—the idea that the Internet might usher in an era of opportunity unbounded by material constraints—are still legible across popular discourse, all the way from dry development papers to mainstream adaptations of Silicon Valley’s corporate propaganda.

“The bottom line is that investment in the Internet is investment in people,” said John Kerry, then US secretary of state, at a 2016 international-development summit. “But we are not taking full advantage of all that connectivity affords…Out of five people, three are without Internet access…That’s unacceptable.”

Kerry’s statement is sedated compared to the epochal ethos of the old Wired line, but it rests on a familiar set of assumptions: The idea that expanding Internet access will necessarily help to deliver the world’s poor from precarity supposes that they primarily suffer from a lack of integration into the global community, and that disconnected people would largely use access for utilitarian ends. It also supposes that economic divides can be meaningfully addressed by grafting a nonexclusive information economy on top of the material world.

These are the guiding principles behind a patchwork of government and nonprofit initiatives to expand Internet access to the roughly 4 billion disconnected people worldwide. They also provide PR cover for platform capitalists at Facebook and Google, who have created their own initiatives to produce tomorrow’s consumers and surveillance targets. In her new book, The Next Billion Users, Payal Arora, a media and communications professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, sets out to challenge many of the assumptions undergirding this phenomenon.

A veteran of the world of connectivity-focused nonprofits, Arora largely focuses her book on the words and actions of development practitioners, which often lean into the Internet as a cure for inequality. She travels to Brazilian favelas, Himalayan Internet cafés, and the suburbs of Riyadh in a sprawling anthropological tour of digital life beyond the West. She returns with a complex portrait of how getting online does (and doesn’t) impact daily life, and a different—but ultimately more human—kind of optimism about an increasingly networked world.

Arora’s book opens with an anecdote about the first development project she worked on: an initiative to set up computer kiosks, vans, and cybercafes in small towns and villages in southern India. “We envisioned women seeking health information, farmers checking crop prices, and children teaching themselves English,” she explains. “We hoped the villagers would become inspired to adopt these new technologies and would mobilize themselves toward a better future.”

This is typical of the landscape. If market forces aren’t sufficient to deliver a reliable connection to your neighborhood, it will likely take a market justification to spur charitable or development-focused investment. The world’s poor, especially in the Global South, are thus expected to behave as rational and entrepreneurial profit-maximizers, milking as much value as they can out of newfound opportunity—and this value is often expected to trickle back into the West, where users benefit from increased network concentration.

While the initiative was popular, Arora found that its outcomes did not align with its original mission. “The kiosks had become gaming stations,” she writes. “The vans came to be known as ‘movie vans,’” and “[m]any of the café owners swore by social networking sites like Orkut, the Facebook of the day, which kept their businesses alive.” In other words, Internet access didn’t have a substantive impact on people’s material conditions, but on the range of their access to leisure activities. Given access, the world’s disconnected inhabitants—like the rest of us—tend to use it for things like online dating, playing games, watching porn, and other pursuits and hobbies that hardly impact their class status.

This is a dominant theme of Arora’s book, which unifies otherwise tangentially related explorations of topics like privacy, work, and romance in the online lives of the newly connected. It might seem intuitive that most people would prefer to use the Internet for “unproductive” ends, but that reality nonetheless poses a problem for the dominant ideological paradigm pushing to expand Internet access today. “When farmers choose to browse for porn on their mobiles instead of checking for information on crop prices,” Arora writes, “aid agencies are at a loss to justify further funding to mitigate the digital divide.”

The Next Billion Users is written with a general audience in mind, but its focus on connectivity-based development projects may come across as wonky and dry to casual readers. Still, those with the will to parse its deeply researched chapters will find explorations of phenomena as varied as the power dynamics of Chinese MMORPG gold-farming sweatshops (where leisure is transmuted into work and offshored from Western markets) and interviews with favela dwellers about privacy, digital surveillance, and how they use Facebook (there is a great deal of cultural variance in terms of how people conceptualize privacy, but teens everywhere seem similarly animated by the pursuit of “likes”).

When speaking of the gulf between those with and without easy and affordable access to an Internet connection, people typically refer to two distinct “digital divides.” The first deals with the basic problem of access to infrastructure, and the second refers to a sociological gap in technical literacy. These are ways of referring to people’s varying capacities to extract tangible benefits from the Internet—access to mobile banking, word processing, government benefits, health information, local news, and so forth. But Arora argues that they fail to capture an important disparity bound up in the problem of access, and proposes a third: the “leisure divide,” or an imbalance in people’s ability to make the most of their leisure time. (Arora thoroughly explores the racialized and gendered contours of this gap, which strays even further from the Internet’s technological features and into its positioning in society.) Confronting apparent discomfort with extending access to “unnecessary” leisure services to the world’s poor, she rhetorically asks: “Is productivity a moral requirement of poverty?”

In a gauntlet of interviews and personal anecdotes, Arora shows that many of the world’s poor don’t seek out the Internet as a tool to become more productive, but as a welcome outlet for economically “unproductive” play. These microscopic investigations are situated within a broader discussion about power, and particularly how profit-driven—largely Western—interests have helped to shape its distribution online. For example, one of the book’s more rewarding sections focuses on the imperial dynamics of international copyright law. Piracy is rampant in places like Malawi, which lacks a robust film industry, and wealthy countries often have economic interests in maintaining regional monopolies on cultural production. As a result, aggressive enforcement of intellectual-property rights has the effect of upholding preexisting cultural and material hierarchies and preventing the Internet from becoming a mechanism of sidestepping them.

Arora devotes a decent amount of ink to cataloging the destructive impulses of “inclusive capitalism,” public-private partnerships, overhyped apps, and other doomed attempts to align the forces of social good and profit-driven greed. These often produce initiatives that either try and fail to solve specific local problems or, worse, actually just end up absorbing and overpowering local informal economies. Arora also provides an overview of the imperial history of subjugating large populations through the collection and generation of data, notably tracing modern datafication through the history of fingerprint technology as employed by the British Empire on native populations in India and North America.

Despite her critique of how the Internet is pushed across the globe, Arora doesn’t advocate against bringing “the next billion users” online. Instead, she argues for reconfiguration of the conceptual terrain. The right to leisure is a central component of collective liberation, so who cares if a teenager in Udaipur just uses the local Internet café to play Counterstrike? Recognizing “frivolous” desires as inherently meaningful is a useful step toward humanizing and expressing common cause.

That recognition is also essential to combatting injustices hiding around phenomena as seemingly benign as Counterstrike. While the problem of extending basic access often demands an economic justification, corporate platform leviathans like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google—the Internet’s de facto gatekeepers—have developed an alarmingly astute understanding of humanity’s common appetite for leisure. While capitalizing on the desires for entertainment and socialization, they often fly under the cover of altruism to exploit new users in the Global South. Remember when Mark Zuckerberg cynically rolled out the odious Free Basics program—an partnership project that rations free access to a walled-garden husk of the Web, over which Facebook wields troubling control—as a humanitarian venture? Tech corporations have not only benefited from but also reinforced the pervasive idea that the Internet serves, foremost, as a pragmatic tool for the world’s poor.

The Internet is not an immaterial leveler, and the world’s poor are certainly not algorithmic optimizers. The Next Billion Users captures this, but it also goes further in gesturing toward a more human perspective: a depiction of imperfect people navigating a complex medium embedded within a preexisting political economy. That the Internet fails as a magical cure-all for historical circumstance may be unwelcome news to techno-utopians and overzealous development practitioners, but there is hope in its capacity to augment and expand human leisure beyond the realm of material advancement—so long as we fight to liberate play from the profit motive. The better we understand one another as more than economic actors, the greater our chances of overcoming real structural obstacles hand in hand.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy