“English not Swahili”: The ill-placed call from a US senator on rewriting Facebook’s user terms

Under scrutiny.
Under scrutiny.
Image: EPA-EFE/Shawn Thew
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For two days, Facebook’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg faced tough questions from US lawmakers in the wake of revelations that data firm Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed the information of 87 million Facebook users.

During a joint hearing of the Senate judiciary and commerce committees, senator John Kennedy of Louisiana criticized Facebook’s user agreement saying it “sucks.” Kennedy lamented that the long and complicated contract stopped many people from reading it, to which Zuckerberg replied in the affirmative.

The Republican senator then said, “I’m going to suggest you go home and rewrite it, and tell your 1,200-dollar an hour lawyer…you want it written in English not Swahili, so the average American user can understand.”

The problem with that comment is Facebook’s growing woes affect its constituents not just in the US but across the world. The social media giant’s reach is so wide and deep that in many parts of the developing world, users equate Facebook with the internet. These include almost 100 million Swahili speakers who are spread not just in East African nations like Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi, but in Oman, South Africa, and in many countries where the African diaspora live.

Swahili is influenced by the confluence of what the late African studies professor Ali Mazrui called the “triple heritage,” namely the indigenous Bantu languages and identity, Islamic religion, and Western traditions. Swahili has grown to be Africa’s most “internationally recognized language” and is seen as the language of trade across the region.

The same user and privacy issues also pertain to Facebook’s other products, which together constitute the most dominant applications across the African continent. With the exception of a few nations, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is the most popular platform in Africa, while Facebook Messenger is mostly used across North Africa, Somalia, and Eritrea. Rival messaging app Telegram is the most popular app in Ethiopia.

Besides, while Facebook’s role in election interference in the 2016 US elections is merited, the company’s problems abroad are far more disconcerting—especially where local regulations aren’t as effective and can result in violence and death. This includes Kenya, where Facebook and WhatsApp were used to spread fake news in a tightly-contested election where over 100 people died. Recent revelations also pointed to Cambridge Analytica’s efforts to spread misinformation and “stage” elections not just in Kenya but also in Nigeria, Facebook’s largest African market.

Beyond Africa, while viral misinformation is not unique to Facebook, its services have been blamed for stirring up hatred against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and in the Philippines where the supporters of president Rodrigo Duterte use it to silence dissent. Facebook is also looking into the possibility that Russia used its platform to influence Brexit.

Senator Kennedy’s comment aside, the internet does have a problem with African languages, essentially keeping millions of Africans offline. And while Facebook recognizes almost a dozen African languages, platforms like Twitter don’t support any native African language. Google AdSense, which allows publishers to make money online through ad placements, doesn’t list African languages, potentially limiting entrepreneurs in Africa from monetizing their content.