Myanmar is one of the great internet stories of recent years, with millions of people coming online after decades of being virtually cut off from the rest of the world due to government oppression. In less than a decade, the country’s digital population has soared, with 97% growth in internet users in a single year and mobile phone penetration at 80%. But not all on-ramps to the web are created equal, as Mozilla discovered through recent research into Myanmar’s zero rating web services.
The drawbacks of zero rating
Zero rating services refer to platforms that only allow free access to certain websites. Mozilla’s Myanmar research analyzed two zero rating offerings. The first was Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) Free Basics program, a now-discontinued service that allowed customers access to some local websites, Facebook Messenger, Facebook Flex (a stripped-down version of the platform without images or videos), WikiHow, Burmese Wikipedia, and pages from the UNICEF Internet of Good Things. The second service they studied was Telenor Free, an option that included 150 MB a day of full Facebook access and unlimited Viber messages. In theory, such platforms should serve as on-ramps to internet use in places that have traditionally suffered from lack of access to wifi and other information technologies.
But Mozilla researchers found that wasn’t the case. In some areas, the “walled gardens” of zero-rated content comprised the majority of users’ internet experiences, leading to concerns about a lack of diversity of content. But users who were aware of different platforms’ limitations used services such as Free Basics and Telenor Free as part of data cost-management strategies so they could access the entirety of the web.
“People have similar motivations for using the internet around the world,” said Peter Cihon, Google Policy Fellow at LIRNEAsia and a policy intern at Mozilla who worked on the Myanmar research. “In this research, when we asked people why they used the internet, people say ‘to stay in touch with family and friends, it’s for entertainment, it’s for news, and it’s for knowledge.'” And users are willing to get creative when they want to achieve those aims. “Respondents pursue sophisticated data-cost management strategies that include using multiple SIMs, switching carriers for promotions, and using zero-rated services to access content for which they would otherwise pay,” Cihon wrote in a summary of the Myanmar research.
While this might sound like an inefficient time-sink, Helani Galpaya, CEO of LIRNEAsia, explained in an interview that many of the phones made by Chinese companies, which are quite popular in Myanmar, come with two SIM card slots, so it’s easier than it sounds. Cihon added that most people in the country use Android phones, and it’s relatively quick and simple to switch out SIMs as necessary.
Still, it’s clear that there’s work to be done on providing affordable, equitable internet access to Myanmar’s population. While Telenor Free proved more popular among Myanmar residents, thanks to its offer of full-featured Facebook, Cihon and Galpaya found that the service provided an on-ramp to Facebook but not to the broader web. This points to another issue they found was rampant in the country: a lack of digital literacy.
The Facebook conundrum
“In Myanmar and a lot of developing countries, Facebook is the internet, whether it’s free or not,” Galpaya said. Cihon noted that in some cases, Telenor Free users don’t distinguish between Facebook and the rest of the internet. They can access the full range of the social media platform’s features, and because Facebook is a dominant force in the country, people don’t feel incentivized to look for other resources. Galpaya said that Facebook’s prominence creates a cycle because political parties, companies, and other organizations all have Facebook pages so between their content and the news, entertainment and personal updates that already attract people to the platform, there’s no reason for users to leave it.
“It’s sort of a Catch-22 where you don’t want to give people poor-quality service to force that distinction between Facebook and everything else,” Cihon said. “The way you square that circle is that it raises the bar, raises the demand, raises the need for digital literacy at scale.” To that end, the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO) is currently working with Telenor to provide digital literacy “Light Houses” throughout the country where people can use wifi and learn about internet resources beyond Facebook. (Disclosure: I contributed to Telenor’s Reach Magazine as a freelancer in 2014 and 2015.)
However, increased digital literacy will likely depend on better accommodations for the local language by popular services. “Platforms that were designed for other languages are not very conducive for Myanmar,” Cihon said. He gave the example of a Yangon-based organization providing health information to pregnant women. The group knew Facebook ads would prove effective at getting in front of women throughout the country, but the word count limits on the ads precluded them from writing compelling ads in Burmese, which requires a greater number of characters to convey the message than if it was written in English. Fortunately, initiatives are underway to facilitate content creation in Burmese unicode and Zawgyi fonts, which could contribute to increased literacy and more diverse use of the internet.
Mozilla’s Myanmar research project found that people want unrestricted access to the internet. Even if Facebook is the dominant source of news, communication and entertainment, people increasingly want access to other options as well. As this demand grows, so, too, one hopes will the variety — and efficacy — of on-ramps.