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NAIROBI (Reuters) – Safaricom, Kenya’s biggest telecoms company, is piloting a social messaging app that will link to its mobile money platform in an attempt to move the company into the application business, the company said on Tuesday.
Bonga, meaning ‘chat’ in Kiswahili, will be integrated with the company’s popular financial services platform M-Pesa to enable the almost 28 million of its users to communicate beyond sending money to one another, transforming the platform into a type of social network.
The idea stems from the “hypothesis that there’s an intricate connection between conversations and transactions, payments especially,” Kamal Bhattacharya, chief innovation officer at Safaricom, said in a telephone interview.
“It’s one thing to share information with somebody it’s another thing to make a payment, to send money to somebody,” he said.
Bhattacharya said that M-Pesa users will be able to message each other on Bonga in three ways: user-to-user, user-to-business and fundraising through “social groups” much like the group function on WhatsApp.
The concept has similarities with China’s top social messaging app WeChat, where users can perform a variety of tasks, from payments to ride-hailing, without leaving the platform.
Bonga is the first product launched by Safaricom’s innovation incubator Alpha. Bhattacharya previously set up IBM’s research lab in Africa and joined the company in 2017.
Safaricom is piloting Bonga internally before planning to launch later this year.
Bhattacharya said the platform will be end-to-end encrypted. “We cannot read the messages, we cannot keep the messages,” he said.
Kenya does not have data privacy laws.
Safaricom is 35 percent owned by South African group Vodacom and 5 percent by Vodacom’s major shareholder Vodafone.
With nearly 30 million users, the company has 70 percent of Kenya’s total mobile phone subscribers.
The introduction of Bonga is part of Safaricom’s strategy to boost revenue and diversify from offerings of voice calls, mobile money and text messages. Last year it launched Masoko, an e-commerce platform.
Its first-half 2017 results showed revenue from mobile money rose 16 percent, while revenue from phone calls rose by far less – only 4 percent.
“Our future is to become a platform that enables business in Kenya as well as our consumers to do their work in a different way,” Bhattacharya said. “Messenger platforms are the most popular apps, the most popular approach on the internet today to bring people together.”
($ 1 = 100.3000 Kenyan shillings)
Reporting by Maggie Fick; Writing by Omar Mohammed, editing by David Evans and Sunil Nair
Federal and state authorities Friday seized Backpage.com, an online classifieds site frequently accused of facilitating sex trafficking, and reportedly indicted seven people. A notice on Backpage’s website said the site had been seized by the FBI and other agencies.
Nicole Navas Oxman, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said Friday afternoon that the agency would issue a press release after charges are unsealed, but things did not go as expected. “The Court has ruled that the case remains sealed and we have nothing to report today,” she wrote in an email Friday evening.
The banner states that the enforcement action was a collaborative effort between the FBI, US Postal Inspection Service, the criminal division of the IRS, the Department of Justice’s child exploitation and obscenity division, as well as attorneys general from Arizona, California, and Texas.
CBS News reported that an indictment had been unsealed against seven people allegedly involved in running Backpage, containing 93 criminal counts including money laundering and running a website to facilitate prostitution. The indictment, which was filed in Arizona where Backpage is maintained, names 17 victims, both adults and children, who were allegedly trafficked, according to CBS News.
On Friday morning, the FBI raided the home of Backpage cofounder Michael Lacey, and there was some activity at the home of cofounder Jim Larkin as well, according to the The Republic, a newspaper in Arizona. A year ago, the paper reported that a federal grand jury had been convened in Arizona to hear evidence against Backpage.
The move against Backpage came just days before President Trump is expected to sign a new anti-sex-trafficking bill that passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming support. The bill initially was controversial because it alters a key internet law that protects tech companies from liability for user-generated content on their platforms.
Previous criminal and civil charges against Backpage had mostly been derailed by that law, the Communications Decency Act. The bill Trump is expected to sign creates an exception for sites that “knowingly” facilitate or support online sex trafficking and explicitly grants states and victims the right to bring criminal and civil action against websites like Backpage. The bill faced opposition from tech companies, free speech advocates, and sex workers, and has already prompted online forums like Craigslist’s personal section and Reddit sections like Escorts and Sugar Daddies to shut down, rather than risk liability. Advocates for sex workers say the closures will endanger those workers, who relied on the sites to share bad date lists and verify clients.
It’s unclear why the federal agencies acted now. The Communications Decency Act did not apply to federal law enforcement agencies, said Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University who testified against the recently passed bill. “The question is why today and why not two weeks ago before the Senate voted?” Goldman said. “The DOJ can’t turn on or off a federal prosecution on a dime, so that seems unlikely, but still the timing is so perplexing.” On Twitter, Goldman said, “It’s almost as if the government is trying to prove that all the anti-Backpage rhetoric fueling #SESTA & #FOSTA was just political theater.” (SESTA and FOSTA are acronyms for versions of the anti-sex-trafficking bill.)
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who cosponsored the bill, called the DOJ’s action to shut down Backpage “long overdue.”
A January 2017 Senate report accused Backpage of facilitating online sex trafficking by stripping words like “lolita,” “little girl,” and “amber alert” from ads in order to hide illegal activity before publishing the ad, as well as coaching customers on how to post “clean” ads for illegal transactions. Judges in California and Massachusetts previously cited Section 230 in dismissing cases against Backpage.
Still, some sex workers said the seizure could endanger them. “If the people who run Backpage have knowingly harmed people, they deserve to be held accountable, but the most immediate impact of the seizure of an entire website will be felt by independent consensual sex workers,” Liara Roux, a sex worker, political organizer, and adult-media producer and director, wrote to WIRED. “Without safe online advertising, which studies seem to show reduced female homicide rates nationally by 17 percent, sex workers are unable to screen clients based on emails and decide who is safe to see.”
Backpage was invoked frequently in the debate around SESTA and FOSTA. Members of the Senate were particularly moved by testimony from Yvonne Ambrose, whose 16-year-old daughter, Desiree Robinson, was killed after she was repeatedly advertised for sex on Backpage. Last year, Ambrose sued Backpage for facilitating child sex trafficking. The documentary “I Am Jane Doe,” followed families in their quest to hold Backpage accountable.
Berin Szóka, president of TechFreedom, a nonprofit that has received funding from Google, says, the timing of the enforcement shows that the vetting process for the bill was rushed. “The argument for SESTA was a sham all along.”
Free Speech or Human Trafficking?
- Within days of the bill’s passage, Craigslist, Reddit, and others shut personals forums, as sex workers had feared.
- The bill could have encourage tech companies to either stop moderating or censor content, opening the door to further attacks on Section 230.
- The backlash against big tech played a role in the passage of the bill.