New report slams Facebook's Free Basics program


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Facebook is very proud of its Free Basics initiative. The successor to the project brings free online access to the populations of over 65 developing countries, but while that may sound commendable, it has often faced controversy. Now, a damning report by activist group Global Voices has called Free Basics “digital colonialism.”

Facebook’s mobile app provides access to a limited number of websites and services; the former lacks photos and videos, allowing users to browse them free of charge. But the report slams Facebook for providing what amounts to “a poor internet for poor people.”

India blocked the Free Basics service last year for violating net neutrality rules. The country’s regulatory authority ruled that no service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.

Global Voices’ report backs these claims. It notes that Free Basics does not offer users the whole internet for free; instead, it prioritizes certain sites, particularly Facebook, which is the only social media service available.

There are accusations that Facebook is acting as an ISP while gathering troves of metadata from everyone that uses Free Basics, including which apps are being used, when, and for how long.

The report also takes issue with the limited number of local languages Free Basics offers in each location, the huge number of ads and third-party services from private US companies, and a lack of local content.

“Facebook is not introducing people to open internet where you can learn, create and build things,” said Ellery Biddle, advocacy director of Global Voices. “It’s building this little web that turns the user into a mostly passive consumer of mostly western corporate content. That’s digital colonialism.”

Global Voices does admit that for many people in developing countries, a free, walled garden version of the internet is better than nothing at all. But “for users who want to get online with Free Basics, Facebook makes and enforces the rules of the road, and is the primary benefactor of profits generated by user data.”

Defending its service, Facebook put out the following statement: “Our goal with Free Basics is to help more people experience the value and relevance of connectivity through an open and free platform. The study released by Global Voices, and the subsequent article in the Guardian, include 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.”

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Posts: 349   +132
I don't see how this was much different from the early to mid-90s internet here in the U.S.. You had Microsoft, Yahoo, and newsgroups. Then Google came along. So if you used any of their engines/services - they controlled what parts of the internet you saw based on their index scores and/or directories (unless you knew the direct URL, you had to search - much like today).

Overtime, people demanded to see more rather than something biased by a private entity. I'm not sure we ever got to 100% unbiased, but we're close enough with the right search terms and ability to go to different sites.

In-time, these free users will either demand the same or move to a competitor once the Facebook Monopoly breaks (Google is looking to expand into poor countries as well).


Posts: 3,836   +1,186
I think that what people need to understand, it's a free service -at least as free as it can get- that's aimed to people who probably have no idea what the internet is, that probably don't know what a computer is, or might not even have a phone. On the other hand, if it's going to be controlled by what Facebook's mood is at the moment, it's not that good either.

I don't see how this was much different from the early to mid-90s internet here in the U.S.. You had Microsoft, Yahoo, and newsgroups.
What? Seriously?? I think you are just too young to remember how it was... heck I am and I still remember a lot more than what you are mentioning there.


Posts: 344   +274
It's hard to see anything wrong with what Facebook is doing. Between the alternatives, no internet or Facebook's initiative, the limited internet is better.

You can ***** and moan all you like about 'colonialism' but there is no perfect third option of giving them gigabit internet for free. There will always be tradeoffs and I'm glad Facebook is doing this.