Internet access in Colombia has improved dramatically in recent years. Access in the countryside, however, remains a challenge. Ariel Barbosa and his NGO want to change this – but not at any cost
When Ariel Barbosa started working with the Internet, hardly anyone in Colombia had heard of it. “We offered email service when no one [else] did this,” he said. “We were also one of the first website providers in the country.” Barbosa, a friendly and pensive man, pauses for a moment; everything sounds so far away.
Unlike commercial providers, Colnodo didn’t want to earn money with those services. From the beginning, the NGO co-founded by Barbosa in 1994 has tried to show how technology can have a positive impact on society and how people can make use of it to improve their lives and their communities. As participants in civil society, Barbosa and his colleagues want to help civil society to use new technologies, and to help others connect and improve their communication.
Colnodo’s office, in a two-story brick house with a small courtyard, is located in a pleasant neighborhood in central Bogotá. The office interior reflects the nature of the organization. It does not look like a modern start-up. They don’t have fancy Macs here, but computers running free and open-source Linux operating systems – mainly Ubuntu, although some of the staff prefer Debian.
The organization’s focus ranges from the fight against data retention (five years in Colombia, one of the longest in the world), to the empowerment of women in the tech sector, the founding of a “Digital Security School,” and the provision of alternative cloud services, which don’t depend on servers based in the United States. Colnodo has become a recognizedmember of the Colombian Internet Governance Forum , where government, private sector, academic and civil society representatives meet regularly to discuss important issues regarding the Internet.
For Barbosa, one of those important issues is net neutrality. Although officially guaranteed in Colombia, it is under threat. Net neutrality means that service providers treat all data on the Internet equally by ensuring that all content can be accessed at the same speed, and that no discrimination of any kind occurs. If a company provides access to certain select web services for free or at a reduced cost, net neutrality cannot be guaranteed.
In Colombia, one specific example illustrates this problem. A few years ago, a new project called “Internet.org” was pitched to high-ranking politicians. Although it sounded like another NGO idea, it was in fact an initiative by Facebook and other tech firms to provide free Internet in Colombia – but only on a very limited basis. Users could only use Facebook and a selection of other web pages, including Wikipedia and a site with information on agriculture.
“We started a campaign against it, because we are convinced that this model is not a fair model of the Internet,” Barbosa said. Facebook ultimately signed a contract with one mobile phone company, Tigo, and launched its “Internet.org” app –also known as “Free Basics” – in early 2015. Colombia was the first Latin American country with such a program.
But “Internet.org” quickly disappeared from public view and today, many experts in Colombia don’t even know that it exists. One reason why is that nowadays almost all the mobile phone companies in the country provide unlimited access to specifically selected services. For Barbosa, this development is negative: “If your service provider gives you WhatsApp or Facebook for free, that sounds nice at first glance. But it also leads to the fact that people don’t use more secure apps like Signal, because in that case they would have to pay for the data.”
In recent years, another important project for Colnodo has been to raise awareness of the dangers of public institutions using Google services, since this would place sensitive private data not only under the control of a US company, but also of the US intelligence services. “We lost this fight,” Barbosa said. Today, many state institutions continue to use services provided by tech giants from Silicon Valley.
It was a fight that few people in Colombia were likely to have noticed. Many Colombians simply use the Internet and don’t care much about the problems that might occur beneath the surface. They generally don’t think much about how the Internet is organized and what it might mean for digital participation or how, in the long run, they might suffer negative consequences if private companies are able to define how access to online services functions.
Put another way: Most people only engage with a tiny part of the Internet – through social networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp. The most important thing for most Internet users is personal communication and entertainment, according to Barbosa.
Beyond that, some people in Colombia still don’t even have the opportunity to go online regularly, since Internet access in rural areas is incredibly limited – despite the government’s extensive efforts in recent years. That is why Colnodo, as well as other NGOs, has started a number of projects to use alternative technologies to provide Internet access for those who don’t have it yet.
One such pilot project is in the Cauca department, located in the southwest of the country. In a municipality called Buenos Aires with some 1,000 inhabitants, they are building up a network with mesh antennas used for long-range Wi-Fi networks, and routers operating with free software. The goal is for people living in the area to be able to communicate more easily with their families and neighbors living on farms scattered throughout the mountainous landscape.
But first, the people in Buenos Aires had to make some decisions: Where to put the towers? Who is responsible for the organization? “The community itself has to manage the project,” Barbosa said. “We are far from being paternalistic.”
For now, the wireless network is just local and not connected to the Internet. But that could change. “We will have to see whether the community wants that to happen, and whether they are willing to cover at least some of the extra costs,” Barbosa said. Colnodo doesn’t want to hand out gifts; they want people to actively take part in these developments.
Barbosa admits that the project faces many challenges. It was delayed, mainly due to bureaucratic reasons. It was much more difficult than they had anticipated to gain access to the radio spectrum they needed. The delay has begun to frustrate people in the participating communities, but Barbosa still thinks it’s worth trying.
This is not the only project that people at Colnodo are working on. They are also starting to use so-called TV white spaces to provide Internet access to people in the countryside who don’t have it yet. This technology uses frequencies allocated to TV broadcasting services that are no longer in use since the switch to digitally-transmitted television.
They also have some bigger goals. Barbosa and his colleagues are lobbying for civil society to become an important actor in the development of the country’s telecommunication system. Right now, discussions are underway in Colombia on the implementation of the 700 Mhz spectrum for mobile broadband in remote areas, a spectrum that complements those already in service.
People at Colnodo think that the license should not simply be sold at commercial auction, but that civil society should be integrated in the process. “Hopefully we will achieve that,” Barbosa said. “The web should be for everyone. We see Internet access as a common good.”