This is a blog post by 2018-19 Mozilla Fellow Bruna Zanolli, who embedded with host organization Article 19 Brazil. Here, Bruna shares insights from her work producing and deploying five Community Networks (CNs) across the country and attending international events related to internet health and digital rights.

A scene from Bruna Zanolli's fellowship
A scene from Bruna Zanolli's fellowship

The first thing that comes to mind when reflecting on my Mozilla Fellowship is that most of the time I said I worked with community networks, this question arose: Why do people in communities need connectivity? My immediate answer was to return the question: Well, what do you use the internet or your phone for? And as they responded, I just nodded and widened my eyes until they realized most of their needs were really basic, and probably similar to those of people who don't yet have connectivity: communicating with their families, getting information, selling, buying or lending things, accessing government services, knowledge and entertainment, or just watching cute animals at play.

Why is it so hard for folks with connectivity to wonder why people without need it? Can the needs of those without connectivity be so different from those of people already connected? Are places that still lack connectivity magical realms of mystical hermits? Perhaps their lives are an incredible science fiction plot, where people have grown full access to telepathy, teleportation and telekinesis, so that connectivity becomes useless?

Connecting through Community Networks

Community Networks (CNs) come as autonomous connectivity solutions to narrow down connectivity lacks. From what I saw on the field trips to the communities I’ve followed, the CNs are needed especially in places where other rights are not guaranteed either. Connectivity, then, is just another missing piece in this bigger puzzle of basic human rights absences. Activists and NGOs on CNs work with a range of technologies to enable communities with no access to reliable and affordable methods of communication and connectivity to do so, by themselves, while exchanging and building traditional and digital skills.

Most narratives about connectivity -- often pitched by Big Tech -- use slogans like: “Connecting the next billion”, “Bringing access worldwide”, “Connecting the unconnected”, and so on. Those projects are mostly moved by the concept of one-size-fits-all. The basic difference to CNs’ approach is that we orbit communities’ realities instead of delivering top-down, ready-made solutions. Looking at people’s specificities and working with their abilities and expectations, we focus on social equity and sustainability sprung from local reality. If we succeed, scalability will come, but not disregarding singularities and diversities.

The fact that people with no connectivity barely produce content about their lives and struggles ends up strengthening prejudices and misconceptions about them. Everybody loses when the narratives of half of the globe are not present, or are defined by those who already have connectivity. When we have a chance to really see how people behind the stories are like and hear about their play and practices of satisfaction and happiness in their own voices and ways, we can be inspired, and broaden our owns. For instance, I got to see the love and joy in which quilombola’s families keep their seeds healthy for generations and do exemplary agroecology, although they just call it agriculture.

Connectivity at what cost?

The same internet used as an ally to combat domestic violence and feminicide in indigenous communities (by improving the communications inside the community, facilitating emergence and support calls, spreading educational campaigns and information on how to denounce and where to get medical and psychological support in order to move on, etc), might also make some man more violent with their partners due to access to rough porn videos.

The responsibilities that come with connectivity are countless and there is a lot groundwork to be done in order to make complexity visible. CNs have been focusing on building human-centered connectivity solutions, rather than tech-centered ones. In contexts of neglected human rights realities, technical problems are the simplest ones to solve.

I’m just skeptical if initiatives driven by megalomaniac slogans (“connecting the next billion”) are actually connecting (with) people... or just chasing internet users/consumers?

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