Governing Big Tech’s Pursuit of the “Next Billion Users”

John Polcari
February 05, 2019

Ten years ago, only 6 percent of the population in low-income and lower-middle-income countries had access to the internet. Today, nearly one in every three people there does. The rapid expansion of internet access across the globe is a welcome development, but it raises new policy challenges. And while there is broad agreement in the development community on the importance of getting digital policy “right,” too little attention has been paid to how policymakers in the developing world can best engage with the companies who dominate the digital landscape. As governments reassess their relationship with these companies, an increasing number are enacting policies that raise barriers to the cross-border flow of data and put the largely global and open nature of the internet at risk. In this paper, we review how internet use has evolved in the developing world over the last decade, with a focus on initiatives by big tech companies to reach the “Next Billion Users.” We then examine how concerns about data privacy, disinformation, and market concentration have manifested in lower-income countries and how policymakers have begun to respond. We close by considering ways the development community can support policymakers seeking to maximize the benefits of an open internet while minimizing its risks.

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