Access Now soft launches Who Owns What? The WOW telco database

With hundreds of leaders from the business and human rights communities assembled at RightsCon Brussels sharing their insights on pressing technology and public policy issues, we’re taking the opportunity to soft launch a new Access Now project: Who Owns What? The WOW Telco Ownership Database.

The WOW Database is aimed at helping advocacy groups, investors, and regulators worldwide engage telcos, making it easier to find information about which carriers and groups operate in countries that have experienced internet shutdowns due to government-ordered network disruptions.

Today in Brussels, we are presenting our data to civil society researchers and telecommunications companies and trade bodies. We are excited to share an overview with our online audience as well. To receive a copy of the full database, please email [email protected].

What is WOW?

The WOW Telco Ownership Database catalogs GSM Association (GSMA) member mobile operators working in countries where the internet was shut down in 2015 and 2016, according to research by Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition. We used GSMA membership as a metric because nearly all major telcos are members and this trade body has demonstrated leadership in providing mobile operators guidance on responding to government demands to disrupt networks.

The WOW Database contains information about telco ownership and operations that can be difficult to locate without access to expensive trade market research services. Its value derives from our aggregation and standardization of information found in an array of publicly available online sources, including the websites and annual reports of mobile operators and their holding companies/majority stakeholders; free market research company profiles; telecommunications news publications and wire services; and general-interest news publications and social media profiles.

The information contained in the WOW Database will likely grow outdated as the sector churns through mergers, acquisitions, and market withdrawals and entrances, especially since publicly available online sources occasionally lag behind paid market research services in reflecting new developments. Yet the data still offers valuable insights into the risks and opportunities present in engaging with the diverse firms represented. By way of periodic updates, and perhaps even the automation or crowdsourcing of certain elements, we envision the WOW Database becoming an enduring and influential open resource.

What’s in WOW?

There are 25 countries, 89 mobile operators, and 41 holding companies/majority stakeholders represented. The 25 countries exclude the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which experienced internet shutdowns yet lacks GSMA member mobile operators. While we began with 93 mobile operators as listed on the GSMA website, four have since merged or folded; these operators have been struck-through in the dataset.

Of the 25 countries, six experienced internet shutdowns in both 2015 and 2016; these are marked in the database using italicized type. Of the 41 holding companies/majority stakeholders, 17 control subsidiaries that are licensed in more than one country where shutdowns occurred in 2015 and/or 2016; these are marked in the database using bold type.

Note that listed mobile operators simply have licenses to operate in countries where shutdowns occurred in 2015 and 2016; neither they nor their holding companies/majority stakeholders necessarily executed or even participated in the countries’ shutdowns in any way.

To receive a copy of the full database, please email [email protected].

Why create and share it?

The WOW Database was initially designed for Access Now’s telco outreach, providing us contextual information about national and regional mobile operations for future negotiations and advocacy. Despite the key role telcos play in facilitating access to human rights and development, there remain many barriers to engaging effectively with these companies, even on critical public policy issues like internet shutdowns, Net Neutrality, privacy, and surveillance. One such barrier is finding accurate information about the global telecommunications sector. Without access to information about subsidiaries, partnerships, and government affiliations, it is difficult to identify patterns and coordinate outreach and advocacy campaigns.

Access Now considers it essential for all stakeholders, especially users at risk, to understand the landscape of telco ownership and operations. While the WOW Database is a prototype, we opted to soft launch it in its early stages to kickstart a common, open resource for all stakeholders. We are happy to discuss its methodology, limitations, and potential.