The #DataMustFall campaign has been relatively quiet in recent months, after the flurry of calls for greedy companies such as MTN and Vodacom to do away with a basic, moral tenet of business: making a profit. While we wait as the bureaucratic process takes its usual meandering course, there have been sporadic calls in the media for the campaign to be resurrected. Most notable among these: Saki Missiakos, the CEO of Internet Solutions who has told MyBroadband that “You and I should not be paying for data”.While I do not have an intimate knowledge of Internet Solutions, their services and profit-margin, on their website they offer a wide range of services and pricing options. For the financial department of the corporation to manage running the business without making a profit with a CEO who truly believes that doing so is moral, I would love to see such ingenuity. However, the comments were not directed at only his own company, but broadly at other players in the industry. To view profit-making as immoral is already problematic – to impose this on other people and to expect them to follow your flawed moral dictate, is even more difficult to swallow.
Mr Missiakos elaborated on his statement and said that connectivity is a basic human right and that “our goal is to make sure that everyone has access” to it. If the connectivity at hand is being provided by a company, then unfortunately it is not a basic human right. The connectivity is being provided through someone else’s work. If you are denied absolute right to the product of your mind and your own effort, and someone else or the state decides how to dispose of it, you are a slave.
Somehow the notion of rights has been expanded to include a right to what others produce. It is easy to call on the government to provide basic rights, but it can only provide them if they collect enough taxes. So, at the end of the day, someone is paying for the data service which some are demanding should be free.
If you believe that data should be free, if you support the Data Must Fall campaign, I encourage you to start a business providing such a service – just remember that you will have to do so for zero profit. You are quite at liberty to do so. But also remember that, despite what you may think are noble intentions, you have no moral claim on what anyone else has produced and you cannot demand that they do x because you deem it appropriate.
Spectrum allocation is yet another mess to sort out. Government stands at the centre of this mess and here I agree with Mr Missaikos that ICASA needs to do more to engage with industry and free up more spectrum. Greater access to the spectrum will make it easier for smaller competitors to enter the market and the increased competition will result in cheaper data products for consumers. If providers want to offer ‘free’ options as part of their services, that is their prerogative.
Before you retweet the meme that data in South Africa is the most expensive in the world, make sure that the statistics quoted are comparing apples with apples and that our context is taken into account. Before you demand that data, or any other product or service, be ‘free’, remember that you are making a moral claim on someone else’s time, resources and effort. Making broad moral demands on whole industries will not result in concrete change.
Chris Hattingh is researcher at the Free Market Foundation.