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Facebook is very proud of its Free Basics initiative. The successor to the internet.org 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.”