On, Off, and Somewhere in Between

It’s been a curious year for social media and content sharing companies. Business is good, ad revenues and user numbers are up, but the headlines have been inconsistent. News reports in developed countries focused on algorithm-curated Trending Topics, inflammatory tweets, fake news, and “filter bubbles.” In emerging markets, headlines concerned zero-rated services, moon-shot projects to deliver last-mile Internet connectivity, and service disruption during elections and political crises. The latter issue deserves greater scrutiny.

Shutting down social media sites, or in some cases all Internet and mobile phone services, has become the modern-day equivalent of capturing the airport, TV, and radio stations during a coup. In the last three years, no fewer than fifteen countries blocked specific sites or entire networks, either on an ongoing basis, during a political crisis, or before an election. Governments don’t have a cartoon-like toggle switch for broadband and phone networks. Most blockages are the result of government-issued directives to mobile operators, and there is usually little choice but to obey. The problem, of course, is that shutting down phone and Internet services has a crippling effect on business and public services (e.g., mobile-enabled health, education, and agriculture projects and mobile financial services).

Frequent or widespread service disruptions can be mitigated by good design and additional investment. The opportunity is to invest in offline-first solutions that support a range of options for data transmission. Solutions include apps that can function independent of Internet connectivity and sync up with a central server later, and mobile apps that can exchange data via SMS or local area networks in the absence of mobile Internet. Service disruptions also incentivize the expansion of national or regional wide area networks (WANs) to connect government offices, health facilities, universities, and other social service providers. So why should social media and content sharing companies invest in local infrastructure and solutions for low- or no-bandwidth environments? Because these efforts bring more people online while showing they serve the public’s best interest. These companies have created platforms that connect billions of people who represent a staggeringly broad range of human ideas, attitudes, and opinions. Crafting a business model or policies that are palatable to diverse users and to the leaders of every city, state, and country might be impossible. But it can’t hurt to support systems that will keep running when the big toggle switch is flipped.

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