With a whopping 148 percent mobile penetration, 87 percent smartphone penetration, and 73 percent Internet connectivity rate, Singapore is a highly connected nation. But digital adoption doesn’t necessarily come with digital safety. Internet scams in 2014 claimed 45 percent of targeted victims in Singapore alone, leading Google to launch a new campaign to help Singaporeans spot scams in conjunction with Safer Internet Day.

Cybercrime and abuse is a global issue. And while campaigns like Google’s can help users in other connected markets, base of the pyramid (BOP) users connecting to the Internet for the first time are much more vulnerable—and creating safeguards for them will require a different approach. Community leaders, Internet companies, and mobile tech providers have a unique opportunity to help emerging-market Internet users start out with a better sense of the promises and perils of the web, and “leapfrog” potentially dangerous behavior.

Digital Fluency

Internet users in developed countries are relatively digitally literate—most people have a basic ability to use technology and understand how to leverage digital tools to achieve desired outcomes. The extensive Internet use that leads to this digital fluency also helps people develop intuitive safeguards for how to interact responsibly with a connected world, hundreds of times a day.

Nonetheless, missteps still occur. Many Millennials have logged hundreds of hours removing malware from a family computer after a parent’s clumsy click of a suspicious email. Others have fallen victim to schemes such as trying to help a down-on-his-luck Nigerian prince recover inheritance from a foreign bank account.

We learn from these mistakes, and we do our best to laugh them off in hindsight, but virtually all of us have encountered some form of far less humorous situations on the Internet. Unauthorized access to personal medical or financial data, for example, can deeply violate individual privacy or cause financial crises. Malicious comments on social media or regrettable pictures spread at a moment of poor judgment can wreak havoc on lives—sometimes resulting in cyber bullying, sexual harassment, or even suicide.

If these concerns exist for those who are supposedly well-versed in navigating technology, what are the risks for base of the pyramid (BOP) users who are far from digitally fluent?

Digital Naiveté at the BOP

Affordable access to smartphones around the world will enable the approximately 2 billion people at the BOP to “leapfrog” traditional 2G networks and begin using high-speed Internet during their first mobile interaction. This mobile adoption will lead to exciting developmental opportunities, including the expansion of small business, facilitation of digital health services, and increased access to mobile financial services. But new users don’t have years of passive awareness of safe Internet best practices behind them when they set up their Facebook account. And it’s difficult to explain digital consent, and the potential uses and permanence of the Internet to someone who has never accessed the web.

The stakes are high: In rural India or Pakistan, sharing a regrettable picture of someone in the community might lead not just to deep embarrassment, but to excommunication or life-threatening abuse from “shamed” family and community members. A poor farmer in Bangladesh, victimized by a financial phishing scam, could be deceived into transferring his small-but-critical life savings to phony investments using mobile payment tools he doesn’t understand. A spurious social media post about a peaceful Rohingya Muslim community member living in Myanmar could immediately trigger religious conflict.

Modeling “Leapfrog Behavior Change”

The potential harm that mobile tech could have at the BOP is not a Luddite argument against new tools—it's a call to action, and Myanmar might be the best place to start.

Decades of military rule and international isolation historically left Myanmar’s telecommunication sector lagging far behind its regional neighbors. However, following recent political and economic reforms, Myanmar awarded the first foreign licenses to rapidly develop the country’s telecommunications networks, with the goal of increasing Internet penetration from 1 percent in 2011 to 80 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, SIM card prices have fallen, incredibly, from $3,000 under junta rule to $1.50 today. One of the networks, Ooredoo, estimates that mobile phones will be accessible to 97 percent of Myanmar’s 51.4 million people by 2020. This surge in telecom development offers a unique digital greenfield to prototype and demonstrate a model that effectively and responsibly introduces new mobile tech to emerging BOP communities.

Encouraging the safe use of new technology wouldn’t require the kind of ominous messaging and multi-million dollar foreign aid commitments normally deployed for public service announcements. Instead, pre-emptive awareness-building campaigns could be broadcast as users come online for the first time. These campaigns would provide mobile users with an opportunity to avoid unsafe Internet behaviors that have taken root in other countries.

Such an effort would require a multi-stakeholder approach, but would be in the financial and social best interests of all. According to a recent report by GSMA, there are two major challenges to encouraging widespread mobile data use in Myanmar: lack of local content and low awareness of the potential uses of data plans. Building an ecosystem of local content creators can be a technical and social challenge, but the following would help expedite the process:

  • Local communities should be at the center of determining what is responsible or acceptable, and then aim to communicate informational messages in an entertaining way that suits the local context. LG’s “sexting” campaign with James Lipton is a great example.
  • Internet companies’ constant integration of new languages into widely used platforms would reduce technical barriers to digital participation, and adding regional dialects would allow people to organically create content in their own primary languages. Simultaneously, websites should articulate clear guardrails for organic local content (such as Facebook’s code of conduct on obscene posts) to create safe spaces for new users to create even more local content.
  • Mobile network operators also have a financial interest in helping new users responsibly engage with the Internet. Fostering safe and useful online interactions is important for these operators because data plan purchases by people already struggling to live at the poverty line are a luxury, not a necessity. Also, negative first experiences with new tools could create poor community perceptions about the value of new web services that may become difficult to reverse later. Therefore, telecoms can designate internal teams to help monitor and prevent cybercrime or abuse, and perhaps even create systems to validate online merchants that request mobile payment transfers. This could then help maintain users’ demand and willingness to conduct safe online commerce and pay for mobile data plans.

Interests for social good and telecom profitability are aligned, but opportunities for pre-emptive interactions will diminish as user adoption increases over the next few years. We need to seize the day—in Myanmar and elsewhere—to ensure that potentially vulnerable BOP mobile users are safeguarded and benefit from a digital blank slate.