Facebook Free Basics
Facebook Free Basics is a free Internet access platform by Facebook that has been available in over 60 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It aims to bridge the digital divide by giving users free access to a handful of online services, such as Accu Weather, BBC News, and Wikipedia.
However, When Facebook Free Basics was launched in India by Facebook, it met with a lot of criticism, the major problem being its alleged violation of net neutrality by being a zero-rating platform that offered free access to a limited number of services. There were also worries that Facebook was using the service to collect more data on users, and about what the social network’s ulterior motives could be. Eventually, the service was brought to a halt last year, after many rightful protests from Internet activists in the country. Global Voices set up a team of researchers in Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines to test the app, and ascertain its potential for the non-Internet users. This team has now published a full report on Free Basics and has mainly outlined all the limitations associated with it.
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First up is “Net Neutrality”. This is simpler than it sounds: it basically means that internet providers shouldn’t block sites without good reason, or favour some over others. The networks should be open conduits, not editorializing forces. The researchers reiterate that Free Basics violates the principles of net neutrality, as it does not allow users to browse the open Internet. It chooses which services to promote, mainly its own Facebook app, and creates an unfair competitive environment for small Internet businesses who cannot afford to put their services on Free Basics yet. Lastly, the researchers claim that Free Basics does not win at meeting “the most pressing needs of those who are not online and that the data and content limitations built into Free Basics are largely artificial and primarily aimed at collecting profitable data from users.”
According to the criticisms on non-promotion of local contents, Free Basics does not meet the linguistic needs of target users, and in many regions like Pakistan and Philippines, where multiple local languages are spoken, the app is offered in only one local language. Furthermore, it does not serve local content that is relevant to users living in that region but promotes US and UK services heavily that may or may not concerns the target audience. According to the report, “it includes a relatively small amount of content relevant to local issues and needs, lacking public service sites and independent news sources. It also does not include an email platform.”
The report also notes that Facebook free basics collects unique streams of user metadata, including information about which third-party sites Free Basics users’ access, when, and for what duration. That is a serious breach if true, and a rich source of information for Facebook, that it can later be used for monetization and advert placement.
“The study released by Global Voices includes significant inaccuracies. The study, based on a small group of Global Voices contributors in only a handful of countries, does not reflect the experiences of the millions of people in more than 65 countries who have benefited from Free Basics.” This was a statement made by Facebook when contacted to give their reaction to the report.