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Who let all those Ghanaians on the Internet? Jenna Burrell on internet exclusion

Jenna Burrell, assistant professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, is speaking today at the Berkman Center on her research on internet usage in Ghana, the subject of her (excellent) book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana. Burrell is an ethnographer and sociologist, and her examination of Ghanaian internet cafes is one of the best portraits of contemporary internet use in the developing world.


Jenna doing fieldwork in Ghana

Her talk today covers some of the work she began in 2004 and published last year, but expands in some new directions, including questions about network security and preserving access in the margins of the Global Internet. Burrell’s understanding of Ghana has been built up through six years of fieldwork, both on how non-elite Ghanaians use the internet, and on how Ghana’s internet has literally been built, from recycled and repurposed computer equipment. She notes that ethnographers are famous for their microfocus. When she published her book, a Facebook friend joked, “How odd, I just finished my book on youth in the internet cafes of suburban Ghana!” Burrell is now interested in some of the broader questions we might examine raised by specific cases like the dynamics of Ghana’s cybercafes.

Burrell notes that early conversations about the internet often featured the idea that in online spaces, we transcend our physical limits and are able to talk to people anywhere in the world. Our race and gender might become irrelevant or invisible. She suggests that just at the point where real cross-cultural connection was starting to unfold online, discourse about a borderless internet became unfashionable. We might benefit from returning to some of these ideas of borderlessness and encounter in places where these encounters are really taking place.

Ghana’s internet cafes are an excellent space to explore how this connect works in practice, as much of what takes place in these cafes is centered on international connect. Ghana’s “non-elite” net youth culture – i.e., the young people accessing the internet via cybercafes, not the digerati who are accessing the net through computers in their homes – centers around the idea of the “pen pal”, an analog concept adapted for a digital age. Many Ghanaian students have interacted with pen pals via paper letters, and their encounters in online space often focused on finding a digital pen pal. Most participating in this culture were English-literate, had at least a high school education and had probably stopped going to school when they ran out of funds. They sought out pen pals for a variety of reasons: as friends, as potential romantic partners, as patrons or sponsors, business partners, or as philanthropists who might fund their future education or emigration.

Much of Burrell’s work has focused on talking to cybercafe users about their stories and motivations. Understanding the gaps between their understandings of the people they are talking with on Yahoo chat or other tools helps illuminate the challenge of cultural encounter. One group of cybercafe youth were collectors. They had applied for British Airways Executive Club membership – the airline’s frequent flyer program – and called themselves “The Executive Club”, reveling in the membership cards the airline had sent. They collected religious CDs and bibles from the people they encountered online. Another Ghanaian participant in Christian chat rooms on Yahoo! complained that his conversation partners didn’t understand his needs and motivations – he was looking for contacts and potential business partners and figured that Christians would be trustworthy people to work with, but was frustrated that they only wanted to talk about the bible. A third person she observed explained, “I take pen pals just for the exchange of items and actually I don’t take my size. I take sugar mommies and sugar daddies…” In other words, he was looking specifically for conversations that led to people giving gifts.

This sounds like a path from conversation into internet scamming, but Burrell warns us not to jump to conclusions. Gift-giving is very common in Ghanaian culture, and while gifts are small, they are important and usually reciprocal. Some of her Ghanaian informants couldn’t understand why asking for a gift chased their conversation partners away. Fauzia, who had been chatting with a man on Yahoo! asked him to send her a mobile phone. Not only did he stop taking to her, he performed a complicated “dance of avoidance”, logging off when he saw her log on. Another informant, Kwaku, was talking with a Polish woman about seeking a travel visa and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t let him stay in her home in Poland. Again, the cultural discontinuity is important – if you traveled to see a friend in their village, you would expect that they would share their home with you and provide a place for you to sleep.

Burrell suggests that there are basic misunderstandings between Ghanaian and North American/European culture around gender and communication norms, the moral economy of gifting and notions of obligation and hospitality. In addition, these cultural discontinuities are complicated by material asymmetries, simplistic perceptions of western wealth and African poverty, and the fact that Ghanaians are often paying for net connectivity by the minute, leading to rushed and high pressure encounters.

When cross-cultural encounters go badly, people seek to block further contact. Networks like Facebook make it very easy to block an individual from contacting you. But Burrell sees the internet moving from simple blocking and banning to “encoded exclusion”, the automatic exclusion of entire countries from being able to access certain servers and services. Dating websites, in particular, have taken to blocking and banning Ghanaians and Nigerians entirely, because they use the websites in ways that the site’s creators hadn’t expected or intended.

Working from Ghana for almost a decade, Burrell has found that it’s often difficult to engage in basic online tasks from that country because sites and services exclude based on geolocation. Based on her experiences and that of her informants, she posits two types of exclusion: failure to include, and purposeful exclusion.

Ecommerce is a space where failure to include is pretty common. Ecommerce is a credit-card based world. Many African economies, including Ghana’s, are largely cash based. Even for Ghanaians who have the money to buy online services, there’s often no easy way to make an online payment. This becomes a rationalization for credit card fraud. Ghanaians who want to participate on match.com, which has a modest member fee, rationalize using a stolen credit card as a way of gaining access to a space that’s otherwise closed. There’s also an unfair stigma attached to cash-based transactions, she posits. Some media coverage of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber, focused on the fact that he’d purchased his air ticket in Ghana, paying cash. US authorities suggested that paying cash was evidence of bad intent and some suggested waiting periods and extra scrutiny for cash payments – Burrell suggests that that’s simply how Ghana’s economy works at present, and that using cash payments as a signal for possible terrorist behavior is a form of failure to include.

Purposeful exclusion also comes into play in ecommerce. Burrell discovered that trying to purchase a product on Amazon from Ghana triggered a set of “forced detours” that made purchasing impossible. Once Amazon detected her login from Ghana, the site immediately reset her password and began sending her phishing warnings. Paypal uses similar techniques – when she tried to sign up for a sewing class in Oakland (to make something out of the beautiful batik she was buying in Ghana), PayPal told her that they didn’t serve customers in Ghana or Nigeria, and started a set of security checks that led to phone verification to her US phone, which didn’t work in Ghana. These extended loops of checks are a huge frustration to the Ghanaians who have the means and tools to participate in these economies. As Ghanaian-born blogger Koranteng noted in an excellent blog post, “If we take ecommerce as one component of modern global citizenship then we are illegal aliens of sorts, and our participation is marginal at best.”

Other blocks are more explicit. Plentyoffish.com, a popular, no-fee dating site, briefly ran a warning that stated that they block traffic from Africa, Romania, Turkey, India, Russia “like every other major site”. The warning was removed, but the site is still inaccessible from Ghana.

Search for “IP block Ghana” or “IP block Nigeria” and you’ll find posts on webmaster fora asking for advice on how to exclude whole nations from the internet. She offers three examples:

From Webmaster World: “I am so fed up with these darn African fraudsters, is it possible to block african traffic by IP”
From a Unix security discussion group: “Maybe we could just disconnect those countries from the Internet until they get their scam artists under control”
From a Linux admin tips site: “I admin an [ecommerce] website and a lot of bogus traffic comes from countries that do not offer much in commercial value.”

Legitimate frustration over fraud leads to overbroad attempts to crack down on this fraud. Burrell’s research involved working with a British woman who lost $100,000 to scams in Ghana – the woman came to Ghana to seek justice and Burrell attended court hearings with her. She suggests that while there’s likely corruption within the Ghana police service, the judges and lawyers she met were genuinely worried about scamming and looking for ways to crack down on the activity. But the perception remains that Ghana isn’t doing enough to protect the rest of the world from its least ethical internet users. This, in turn, has consequences for Ghana’s many legitimate users.

She leaves the group with a series of questions:
– How do we consider inclusiveness as one of the principals to strive for in network security best practices?
– How do we investigate and make visible the consequences of network security practices at the margins of the internet?
– When is country-level IP address blocking appropriate?

These questions lead to a lively discussion around the Berkman table. Oliver Goodenough wonders whether the practices Burrell is describing parallel redlining, the illegal practice of denying certain services or overcharging for them in neighborhoods with high concentrations of citizens of color. But another participant wonders whether we’re being unfair and suggests that using concepts like “censorship” to discuss online exclusion is unfairly characterizing what might simply be wise business practice. “Should a company be compelled to do business in a country where there’s no legal infrastructure to adequately protect it?” Jerome Hergueux argues that global trade follows trust, and that the desire to exclude these countries may be seen as a vote that there’s no trust in how they do business. Burrell notes that there are patterns of media coverage that contribute to why we don’t trust Ghanaians, and that those perceptions might not be accurate.


I’m deeply interested in the topics Burrell brings up in this talk. I’ve experienced the purposeful exclusion Burrell talks about, both in trying to do business from west Africa, and in my travels back and forth – I routinely bring goods to Ghana and Nigeria that friends in those countries have ordered and sent to my office, because they can’t get them delivered to their homes. It’s very strange when people you’ve met only over Twitter send you iPads so you can bring them to Nigeria… but it is, as Hergeuex points out, an interesting commentary on who we trust and who we don’t.

I worry about another form of exclusion that’s mostly theoretical at this point, but possible: what if spaces that are acting as digital public spheres become closed to developing world users? That’s an idea put forward in a New York Times article by Brad Stone and Miguel Helft. Examining Facebook’s efforts to build sites “optimized” for the developing world, they wonder whether companies, desperate to become profitable, will stop serving, or badly underserve, users in countries where there’s little online advertising, like Nigeria and Ghana.

Talking with Burrell after her talk, I wondered whether there’s a hierarchy of needs at work: should we worry more about Facebook banning Nigerian users (no evidence that they will, to be clear) more than Amazon or OkCupid? Are we willing to argue for a global right to online speech, but no global right to online dating? Burrell argued that accessing OkCupid might be more significant in terms of life transformation for a Ghanaian user than accessing Facebook and suggested that any sort of tiering of access was challenging to think through.

It’s interesting to consider: the Internet Freedom agenda advocated by the US State Department focuses on countries that would block access to the internet to prevent certain types of political speech. But what if the real threat to global internet freedom starts with US companies that don’t see a profit in letting Ghanaian or Nigerian users onto their sites? Anyone want to bet on whether a Kerry State Department will be willing to tell US companies to stop excluding African users?

2 Responses to “Who let all those Ghanaians on the Internet? Jenna Burrell on internet exclusion”

  1. From the business side, many business are riding on the waves of this internet adoption and explosion in Ghana. Online Jobs Portals in Ghana are typical examples of how Ghanaians are using the internet to build businesses and better the lot of their people back home. This will help reduce the misuse of the internet by our people.

  2. Kea says:

    Excellent post, typo on “poverty” here:

    “In addition, these cultural discontinuities are complicated by material asymmetries, simplistic perceptions of western wealth and African pvoerty, and the fact that Ghanaians are often paying for net connectivity by the minute, leading to rushed and high pressure encounters.”

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