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Can Facebook connect the next billion?

Motorists ride past a billboard advertising Facebook's Free Basics initiative in Mumbai, India, 30 December 2015
Motorists ride past a billboard advertising Facebook's Free Basics initiative in Mumbai, India, 30 December 2015

REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

This statement was originally published on on 27 July 2017. It is republished here under Creative Commons license CC-BY 3.0.

In 2015, Facebook rolled out a plan to help bridge the digital divide in developing countries with a mobile app called "Free Basics".

The Free Basics program aims to bridge the digital divide by creating an "on ramp" to the Internet through a closed, mobile platform that gives users free access to a handful of online services, such as Accu Weather, BBC News and Wikipedia.

Now active in 63 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Free Basics has become a part of Facebook's ascent to becoming the most popular and powerful social platform on earth. Thirteen years after going live, Facebook now has two billion monthly active users, more people than the total population of China. And the company has worked especially hard over the past two years to make its products popular and easy to use in developing countries. Free Basics is an important piece of this strategy.

On their promotional website for the app, Facebook rationalizes that "[by] introducing people to the benefits of the internet" they will help justify the cost of mobile data and thereby "bring more people online and help improve their lives."

So how well does the app serve local interests and needs?

In spring 2017, a group of Global Voices tech and digital rights experts in Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines set out to answer this question. We conducted a series of case studies in these countries where we used the app and tested it against usability and open internet benchmarks that we developed in consultation with experts from the ICT and internet policy world. [Read the full report].

With this research, we aim to increase public awareness, as well as digital rights and Information Communication Technology sector knowledge about the utility of Free Basics in the countries where it has been deployed.This interactive holds a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Our key findings:

- Free Basics might not speak your language: Free Basics does not meet the linguistic needs of target users. No version of the program tested in our study adequately served the linguistic needs of the local population. In heavily multilingual countries including Pakistan and Philippines, the app is offered in only one local language.

- Free Basics features little local content, but plenty of corporate services from the US and UK. Free Basics 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.

- Free Basics doesn't connect you to the global internet - but it does collect your data: Facebook collects unique streams of user metadata from all user activities on Free Basics, not just the activities of users who are logged into Facebook. The company collects information about which third-party sites Free Basics users access, when, and for how long.

- Free Basics violates net neutrality principles: Free Basics does not allow users to browse the open Internet. It offers access to a small set of services and prioritizes the Facebook app by actively urging users to sign-up for and log into the service. Free Basics also divides third-party services into two tiers, giving greater visibility to one set of information over another.

- Some internet is better than none - but not on Facebook's terms: Global Voices research findings suggest that most of the content offered via Free Basics will not meet 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.

About the research

We measured Free Basics against collectively-developed benchmarks of usability, quality of connection, language and accessibility, content, and privacy/data policies. Each researcher used and evaluated the app in their home country, and wrote a brief case study summarizing their findings.

Our full research report reflects our collective findings and analysis. Appendices to the report include our methodology, a selective list of third-party services provided by Free Basics and a collection of screenshots of each version of the app. We encourage curious readers and researchers to explore all of these materials and consider using them to conduct their own research or analysis.

Read the full research report.

Colombia case study

Ghana case study

Kenya case study

Mexico case study

Pakistan case study

Philippines case study

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