“The digital divide is now a matter of life and death for people who are unable to access essential healthcare information,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in June 2020. Almost half the global population currently has no internet access, and many who do cannot freely access all information sources.
Freedom House, which tracks internet restrictions worldwide, says the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom. It found that governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts in 2020 to suppress unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations and other COVID-19-related content.
Now, U.S. company Toki is building “school-in-a-box” devices to connect up to 1 billion people across Africa and Asia, using technologies that it claims could filter content to avoid some information sources and bypass local censorship. The devices will be Wi-Fi-ready servers that run on electric power or batteries and can handle dozens of concurrent users. If no networks are available, the servers will also come pre-installed with digital libraries curated to provide “locally relevant content.”
One of Toki’s country managers describes on LinkedIn that the devices would also run a decentralized search engine, designed to be anonymous, private and censorship-resistant. They will be donated to communities in the developing world by a U.S. nonprofit* called eRise, which was founded in 2019 to, according to its website, “focus on digital empowerment initiatives that are capital-efficient, and which improve access to content, community and commerce.”
Both Toki and eRise were founded by entrepreneur and free speech advocate Rob Monster. Monster owns domain registration company Epik, which allowed controversial social network Parler to come briefly back online last week after the site was booted from Amazon’s cloud service. Parler is just one of several platforms enabled by Epik, and Monster’s other domain and web hosting companies, that have been home to far-right content. Parler is accused of hosting users that helped to coordinate the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
The “school-in-a-box” would contain a memory card with educational content, games, books, maps and modules related to prayers, the story of religions and “the art of being grateful.” It says the device is intended for “parents who want their kids to be smarter and curious; schools who can’t afford a computer; [and] religious places who wish to spread awareness about education and empower the society.”
But one researcher says this effort recalls Facebook’s heavily criticized project offering free connectivity in India, which spawned accusations of bias and self-censorship.
“We’ve seen a similar tactic by Facebook, to provide digital access points that can also serve the purpose of delivering favorable content and ensuring that these groups become dependent on your benevolence,” said Dr. Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center. “It becomes that much harder later on to change the power dynamics when the ideology is in the infrastructure.”
Monster has used free speech arguments to defend Epik’s working with platforms that either welcome or tolerate extreme content. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has been reported as saying that Monster “offers services to the most disreputable horrific people on the Internet.”
Epik spokesperson Rob Davis told TechCrunch that Epik actively works with its clients to help them moderate content, and claimed that the company has deplatformed Nazi groups and deleted those promoting genocide.
“Lawful, responsible freedom of speech is an amazing right,” said Davis. “Every [domain registrar] has groups like this but Epik is often held to a higher standard.”
In a series of posts in 2019 on a forum dedicated to domain-name trading, Monster provided more details about the Toki technology. The servers would be powered by cheap Raspberry Pi processors and run a proprietary version of Linux that would enable file sharing, peer-to-peer commerce, a digital wallet and a personalized search engine, with the option of “ignoring certain data sources.”
“Decentralization not only means decentralization of the narrative and talking points of big tech groups like Google, Twitter and Facebook,” said Epik’s Davis. “It also means anti-censorship by empowering people with things that they didn’t know.” The spokesperson gave the example of naturopathic remedies for minor health complaints. Naturopathic remedies have not been proven to be effective against COVID-19.
Eventually, each device might come pre-loaded with a “snapshot” of the internet, said Davis, although he did not describe how the internet might be reduced to fit on a single, small physical device. The eRise website notes that content would be curated by local digital librarians that it would recruit. Davis told TechCrunch that Toki has working models of its server, is already conducting field trials and hopes to start deploying the devices to 6,000 villages in Africa in 2022 or 2023, perhaps in collaboration with an unnamed Asian telecoms company.
The Toki devices’ selectivity, if practical, could raise its own content and censorship concerns; for example, if eRise allowed extreme content similar to that seen on Epik’s clients like Gab and Parler, or ignored scientific advice on COVID-19 or other health issues.
Donovan said she is wary of any one-box solution. “We have to focus on decoupling information companies from service providers,” she said. “That much control can be used for political gain. Technology is politics by other means.”