Just days after being threatened with legal action, MTN has agreed to provide free access to educational websites for children.
Late last week the DG Murray Trust, a philanthropic organisation, announced that it was suing MTN in order to make the operator zero-rate the websites of public benefit organisations, essentially making them free to access for MTN customers.
Earlier this year, the government ordered a bunch of health and educational websites be made free to access online, such as the government’s official coronavirus information hub.
In May, the Department of Basic Education approved 39 websites belonging to public benefit organisations for zero-rating. These organisations provide literacy and learning resources for children. Examples are Thanda, Wordworks’ home literacy and Olico Maths.
According to the DG Murray Trust, those organisations can be a vital source of education for the poorest children in South Africa.
“According to a 2016 survey conducted by the South African Development Council, close to 60% of families have no books in their homes other than religious texts and by 2018, only 10% of people said they had internet at home,” the Trust says.
“Yet most children in informal settlements and rural areas have access to a feature phone, albeit with limited connectivity.”
But nothing happened. The mobile operators, including Vodacom and Telkom Mobile, did not make the websites free to access.
The DG Murray Trust says it spent three months trying to convince the operators to comply. Until two weeks ago, only Telkom and other fixed-line operators had complied. Finally, Vodacom said last week that it had begun to zero-rate some of the websites.
MTN held out, saying that, although it had every intention of zero-rating the websites, doing so was technically complex and it was prioritising universities and technical and vocational colleges.
The Trust then launched a legal bid to compel MTN to zero-rate the websites “on the grounds that the poorest children, who do not have access to online education in their schools, but could benefit from the digital educational resources of PBOs, should not be pushed to the back of the queue in terms of the order in which websites are zero-rated.”
MTN initially signalled its intention to defend the matter saying that it was “working hard to complete the complex coding, vetting and security checking that is required for each URL and any claims to the contrary are vexatious and being made in extraordinarily bad faith.”
MTN previously struggled with zero-rated Twitter access – and customers it said used a loophole in that service to access up to R18,000 worth of data a day for free.
MTN eventually ended its zero rating of Twitter.
But this week MTN changed course. The company’s lawyers confirmed to the DG Murray Trust that all 39 websites would be free to access by the end of 22 July.
The Trust ended up withdrawing its legal application.
“We are thrilled with MTN’s accelerated action to zero-rate the websites of PBOs”, said David Harrison, CEO of the DG Murray Trust.
“This means that many more poor children will have access to stories, language and maths. It is strong recognition that public benefit organisations play a crucial role in education in South Africa.”