Being back in Addis at the height of the debate on VoIP, such as Viber; WhatsApp and the like, has me thinking very hard about the relationship between technology and governments. I have been trying to understand the logic behind Ethio Telecom’s view of these apps. The argument, as I understand it, seems to be that these apps are using the infrastructure built by the telecom, i.e. cables and wires for internet; however, the applications are not paying for their usage of this infrastructure to provide services to their users. I find this logic to be flawed for many reasons; here are some of the major flaws.
First and foremost, Ethio Telecom needs to understand that the internet is a platform or an access point. It is not something that exists in the abstract—it is a means to an end. Let’s say that a jobseeker was able to find a job posting online and through numerous exchanges of emails is hired. This person is a subscribed user of Ethio Telecom and has paid for the Internet data she used while applying for and securing her job. Following Ethio Telecom’s logic, does this mean that this new employee needs to pay a portion of her salary to the internet provider because she found her job via the infrastructure built by it? Needless to say how absurd this sounds.
Secondly, let me take the Viber application as an example. The application is available only on the internet. From a user’s perspective, in order to access the application you would have to download it and be online so as to use it, meaning it provides no offline services. The download and use of Viber are dependent on users’ ability to pay for internet data to the Internet service provider in their respective country, in our case Ethio Telecom. Therefore, the users—both on the receiving and calling end—are always paying for the internet data they are using.
From the perspective of the application, it provides a free texting and calling platform, for Viber to Viber and a paying service if one wants to call a non-viber user, known as Viber Out. The only way that users can buy credit for Viber Out services is if they have a credit or debit card with foreign currency. Considering the banking regulations and the dollar crunch in Ethiopia, how many Ethio Telecom users have access to such a card? My guess would be, very little!
Ethiopia is not the only government that has a not-so-positive-relationship with technology. This is common in countries where governments have monopoly or very strict regulations over certain services such as telecommunications, banking, transportation etc… What technology, specifically the Internet, is doing is creating alternatives private alternatives to these services. And this is causes a shock for governments because their main function is: service delivery. Between applications such as Uber and Lyft that provide ride sharing services with competitive prices, Google Wallet and PayPal that provide alternative to banking for online money transfer, WhatsApp and Viber that provide free online calling and texting services, service delivery is being recreated in ways governments had not imagined. Although these services alleviate some of the burden, governments are now becoming “less in the know” about what their people are doing, where they are going, how much money they are transferring and who they are talking to.
All of the data that was once in the immediate control of the governments is now being taken over by private companies, making their accessibility a tad bit complicated. WhatsApp recently announced that it will be encrypting all communication, which means that the information about the users and their communications online will be kept secret and inaccessible to everyone but the company.
It is important to keep this one fact in mind: Viber, and many applications like it, does not make any money. Even though it sold for 900 million dollars in 2013, Viber is yet to monetize. Although it makes no money, it has 300 million users, roughly three times the entire Ethiopian population.
So perhaps the issue with Ethio Telecom, and many other government-owned service providing entities, is more about them loosing access to the data of the users and less about loss of potential profit. Just a thought!