It’s digital colonialism’: why Facebook’s free internet service is failing
Free internet service for developing markets focuses on ‘western corporate content’ and violates net neutrality principles, researchers say
By Olivia Solon
Jul 27 2017
Free Basics, Facebook’s free, limited internet service for developing markets, isneither serving local needs nor achieving its objective of bringing people online for the first time.
That’s according to research by citizen media and activist group Global Voices, published this week, which examined the Free Basics service in six different markets – Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and Philippines – to see whether it was serving the intended audience.
Free Basics is a Facebook-developed mobile app that gives users access to a small selection of data-light websites and services. The websites are stripped of photos and videos and can be browsed without paying for mobile data.
Facebook sees this as an “on-ramp” to using the open internet: by introducing people to a taster of the internet, they will see the value in paying for data, which in turn brings more people online and can help improve their lives.
However, the Global Voices report identifies a number of weaknesses in the service, including not adequately serving the linguistic needs of local populations; featuring a glut of third-party services from private companies in the US; harvesting huge amounts of metadata about users and violating the principles of net neutrality.
“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.”
To deliver the service, which is now active in 65 countries, Facebook partners with local mobile operators. Mobile operators agree to “zero-rate” the data consumed by the app, making it free, while Facebook does the technical heavy lifting to ensure that they can do this as cheaply as possible. Each version is localized, offering a slightly different set of up to 150 sites and services.
But many of the services with the most prominent placement – on the app’s homepage – are created by private US companies, regardless of the market. These include AccuWeather, Johnson & Johnson-owned BabyCenter, BBC News, ESPN and the search engine Bing. There are no other social networking sites apart from Facebook and no email provider.
Alongside them are country-specific offerings, but their presence is determined by which companies have adapted their code to meet the requirements of the Free Basics platform, rather than those that meet local needs.
“The content does not include some of the important websites Ghanaians want to look at,” said Kofi Yeboah, who researched the app in Ghana, noting that popular news websites such as MyJoyOnline and CityFM were missing.
In the Mexican version of the app, offered by Telcel, there’s only one local site on the first page: for the foundation of the billionaire Carlos Slim, the CEO of Telcel. Bizarrely, the same app also offers two Nigerian websites and a regional news outlet for Argentina.
Free Basics is also restricted in terms of language. Kenyan users can choose an interface in English or Kiswahili, but most of the services are offered in English only. In Ghana, everything is in English, even though other languages, such as Twi and Hausa, are widely spoken.