Facebook’s Controversial ‘Free Basics’ Project Spreads to 47 Countries

Capture d'écran de la vidéo présentant Free Basics sur YouTube. Via internet.org

Screenshot of a video introducing Free Basics on YouTube. Via internet.org

Responding to the fact that a majority of the world's population lives areas where mobile Internet access is unaffordable, Facebook launched its “Free Basics” program, in collaboration with local mobile phone operators and telecommunications companies around the world. The project allows users to access select websites and services, if they're using a SIM card from a participating mobile-phone operator.

Launched in August 2013, Free Basics is the result of a collaboration between Facebook and the mobile-technology companies Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia, and Qualcomm, along with local telecommunications providers in areas where the service is provided.

Originally named “Internet.org”, the social media giant changed the name to “Free Basics” after critics complained that the name could lead users to believe that the app gives unbridled access to the Internet, which it does not.

But the app does offer access to useful resources. Facebook allows any web developer to submit their apps for review. If approved, based on technical and other substantive criteria, apps can be included in the package. Olivier Ntanama is a blogger from Bukavu, where he studies in the East of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He is also the founder of the Tech in Congo blog, where he lists the “Top 80 Free Websites with Facebook's Free Basics,” a helpful resource for those interested in learning more about the app's offerings.

Thierry Barbaut, an African technology specialist, described the project's impact to Afrique Technologie as a useful educational effort:

Ce programme a un véritable impact sur les vies humaines en fournissant un accès gratuit à la santé, à l’éducation, et aux informations économiques. SmartBusiness, par exemple, est un site qui apprend aux gens à lancer et à gérer une entreprise, avec désormais 5 services de recherche de plus par jour depuis son lancement en Afrique du Sud au mois de juillet, ce qui signifie qu’un plus grand nombre peut accéder aux informations économiques importantes.

BabyCenter et MAMA atteignent des millions de personnes dans le monde en proposant des informations de santé primordiales pour la grossesse et l’art d’être parent et, rien qu’à travers les services Free Basics Internet.org, 3,4 millions de personnes sont informées.

This program has a true impact upon human lives through providing free access to health, education, and economic information. SmartBusiness, for example, is a site that teaches its users how to launch and manage a business. It now has five more search services per day, since its launch in South Africa in July. This means that a greater number of people can now access important economic information.

BabyCenter and MAMA reach millions of people worldwide by offering pregnant woman essential health information and providing information on parenting and raising children. Through the medium of Free Basics Internet.org alone, 3.4 million people are receiving information on these topics.

In a post titled “Free Basics in Madagascar: Facebook's Free Internet at What Price?” Malagasy blogger  looked at the advantages of the app in her country. During a Facebook mission team's visit to Madagascar, she wrote:

Le nombre d’utilisateurs de Facebook sur la grande île a augmenté considérablement ces dernières années. Chacun y trouve son compte : du petit vendeur de téléphone seconde main au leader de parti politique en passant par l’étudiant. Bon nombre de discussions transitent sur les groupes créés sur le réseau social, allant des plus enrichissantes aux plus futiles. Facebook est devenu un outil de communication incontournable, autant sur le plan personnel que professionnel. Free Basics pourrait aussi aider à créer des emplois et à combattre la pauvreté, grâce à la mise à disposition d’informations utiles à la population.

A Madagascar, l’Autorité de Régulation des Technologies de Communication (ARTEC) ne s’était pas encore prononcée publiquement sur le sujet. Quant au ministre des postes, des télécommunications et du développement numérique, il a honoré de sa présence le lancement de BIP, le 2 Juin dernier. Il a été clair lors de son discours en qualifiant le partenariat entre l’opérateur et Facebook comme une « étape cruciale vers une société malgache où la connectivité a toujours été une réalité ».

The number of Facebook users on the big island has risen considerably during the recent years. There is something for everyone: from the small-scale seller of second-hand phones to leaders of a political parties to students. A good number of discussions take place in groups created on the social network, from the more enriching discussions to the very futile. Facebook has become an unavoidable communication tool, on both a personal and professional level in equal measures.

Free Basics could also help to create jobs and to fight poverty, thanks to its provision of useful information to the public. In Madagascar, the Authority of Regulation of Communication Technologies (ARTEC) has not publicly declared its stance on the subject. The Minister of Post, Telecommunications and Digital Development attended the launch of the new Madagascan mobile phone operator, Bip. He was clear in his speech that the partnership between the operator and Facebook was a “crucial stage towards a Madagascan society in which connectivity has always been a reality”.

In May 2015, Free Basics was accessible in 47 countries in Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America. In Africa, 22 mobile-phone operators were offering the service in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, Zambia, Rwanda, and Guinea among others.

According to The Guardian, Facebook has been in talks with U.S. government officials and mobile-phone operators to develop a U.S. version of Free Basics. As in other countries, this version would be adapted for low-income groups and rural areas that are not able to afford either broadband Internet access or Internet access via smartphones.

Despite many users’ appreciation of the service and the fact that it is free to use, there is resistance to Free Basics, which led to the program's closure in India and Egypt.

In May 2015, NGOs working to defend online rights published an open letter addressed to Mark Zuckerberg, denouncing the program for violating the principles of net neutrality, and thereby threatening freedom of expression and equality of opportunity, security, privacy, and innovation. The NGOs accuse Zuckerberg of building a “walled garden,” in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services. The petition has received thousands of signatures from around the world.

Organizations endorsing the petition include several African groups, such as Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, Right 2 Know Campaign (South Africa), Unwanted Witness (Uganda), Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Centre Africain D'Echange Culturel (CAFEC- Democratic Republic of the Congo), i freedom (Uganda), KICTANet (Kenya), and Just Associates (South Africa). Global Voices Advox was also signatory to the letter.


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