Week in Review: October 23, 2017

by Dan Bateyko

Alphabet’s “Project Loon” sends solar-powered Internet-balloons to Puerto Rico

Alphabet - Google’s parent company - has sent experimental balloons carrying communications equipment to Puerto Rico as part of the relief effort following the loss of life and severe damage after Hurricane Maria. Much of the island is still without access to electricity or communication technology - 83% of cell towers were down in the immediate aftermath and AT&T reports that only ~60% of the population has been reconnected.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an "experimental license" to Project Loon at the beginning of the month, allowing the project to work in Puerto Rico to bring text-messaging and lite web-browsing.  In order for users to access some of the service provided by Loon, Apple has been working with AT&T to send users a special carrier settings update which will allow them to connect to Project Loon balloons.

In a recent blog post, the head of Project Loon cautions that  “Project Loon is still an experimental technology and we’re not quite sure how well it will work, but we hope it helps get people the information and communication they need to get through this unimaginably difficult time.”

Earlier this year, Project Loon partnered with Telefonica to deploy balloons to Peru after flooding disrupted telecommunication services.

Internet Shutdown Persists in Cameroon

As of writing, Cameroon is experiencing an Internet shutdown in its English-speaking regions, preventing access to social media amid mass protests and violence. The Internet shutdown began October 1 and marks the second disruption to Internet access in Cameroon this year—despite promises from the post and telecommunications minister that the government would not limit access.

Access Now, a digital rights non-profit which has been keeping track of Internet shutdowns globally as part of its #KeepItOn campaign, documents the impact of the shutdown through stories from people in Cameroon:

“I’m unable to reach my relatives. They last contacted me on the 1st of October to say they were fleeing our home in Bamenda. The Cameroon military forces invaded our family home and started beating, shooting, and maiming people. I am a very compassionate person, and this shutdown has had a big effect on me.” - Myra, a 26-year-old business woman.

The previous Internet shutdown in Cameroon lasted 93 days, costing the country an estimated $4.5 million in economic losses and decreased investor confidence. Many companies and workers that relied on a steady internet connection lost business and some people in Cameroon reported having to travel three hours by bus to the nearest reliable internet connection.

The State Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs issued a press statement soon after the October shutdown, expressing concern over the violence in Cameroon and the restriction of freedom of expression through limiting internet access. This shutdown is the latest in a string of shutdowns in Africa in response to protests; according to Access Now, six other African countries, including Chad, Egypt, and Uganda, ordered disruptions in response to political events in 2016.

Follow the news in Cameroon and track Internet use through the Net Monitor’s Cameroon dashboard.

Swaziland campaign leads Google to remove nudity content restrictions flags

An online media company's campaign against Google’s content restrictions has restored full-access to videos of bare-breasted women participating in traditional Swazi and Zulu cultural events, according to a report in OkayAfrica.

The campaign, led by Lazi Dlamini of TV Yabantu, began by organizing protests against Google after its YouTube videos were age-restricted or labeled as inappropriate or not suitable for advertisers, leading to a loss of views and revenue.  TV Yabantu reached out to more than 200 Swaziland cultural groups to put together a series of videos of African women speaking out against social media platform content restrictions.

The video captures protesters gathered in Durban, holding up signs such as "Google a racist" and "Facebook stop deleting our pictures" in an effort to call out purported racist censorship practices.

In a Mail and Guardian article, Dlamini rebuked Google, stating that “‘You [Google] talk about community standards, but you’re only talking about western community, not African community. But they did not engage with that. They just said these are our standard terms, if you don’t like it then you don’t have to use the platform.”

See Internet monitor dashboard on online company corporate responsibility here .