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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Colombia case study [PDF]
Ghana case study [PDF]
Kenya case study [PDF]
Mexico case study [PDF]
Pakistan case study [PDF]
Philippines case study [PDF]
Appendix 1: Methodology [PDF]
Appendix 2: Selected list of Free Basics Services [Google drive]
Appendix 3: Screenshots [Google drive]
Monica Paola Bonilla is a linguist who has collaborated Global Voices since 2015. She has worked on projects of language documentation and localization of software to native languages spoken in Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru. Her areas of interest are applied linguistics, digital literacy, digital inclusion, free software, computer science and native languages. She serves as the Mozilla Rep for Colombia, leads Mozilla Nativo Club and works for an open and accessible web for all people.
Giovanna Salazar is an internet researcher who focuses on information controls and digital activism in Latin America. She holds a Masters in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam and serves as the Advocacy and Communications Officer at SonTusDatos.org, a Mexican NGO focused on privacy and data protection online. She is also a regular contributor for Global Voices’ Advox and Latin America teams.