Young Philippino girl on a smartphone

Facebook’s Free Basics fails to meet needs of target populations, report says

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A report by citizens’ rights group Global Voices has heaped criticism on the app at the centre of Facebook’s Internet.org accessibility programme, Free Basics. According to the group’s report, as well as violating the principle of net neutrality, the app does not provide an appropriate local service to its users, and is “primarily aimed at collecting profitable data”.

Launched in 2014, Facebook’s Internet.org initiative is intended to improve digital access by offering people free access to some web content on their smartphones, such as BBC News and Wikipedia. It is a major part of Facebook’s strategy to extend its reach – which already encompasses two million active users – to developing countries.

The cornerstone of the initiative is an app, Free Basics, which gives users access to a selection of data-light websites and services. Free Basics was described by Facebook as an “on ramp” to the internet.

Free Basics has now been spread to 63 countries. Despite its expansion and uptake by tens of millions of users, it has not been free of controversy. In February 2016, the Indian telecommunications regulator banned the app, based on its violation of net neutrality; the principle that all internet traffic is treated equally. Facebook subsequently withdrew the app from the country.

Global Voices – a non-profit citizen media group – has recently published an in-depth report on Free Basics, based on usability and open internet benchmark tests of the app carried out in six of its target countries. The report is focused on discussing whether Free Basics is being used by its target group, and the extent to which it serves local interests and needs.

According to the researchers, “no version of the program tested in our study adequately [serves] the linguistic needs of the local population”; the majority of available sites were in English, and in multilingual countries such as the Philippines, the app itself was offered in just one local language. The content available provided “plenty of corporate services from the US and UK”, but limited local content.

The researchers also noted that the app allows Facebook to collect data about all user activities on the app, such as which third-party sites are being looked at and for how long.

The report is critical of the content limitations of Free Basics; while search engines such as Bing are available to users, most of the links that appear in the search results direct the user to pages which are not accessible without data charges. The violation of net neutrality – a high-profile issue due to the ongoing repeal of US net neutrality regulations by the Federal Communications Commission – has been the focus of criticism of the app.

Websites and services are split into two tiers on Free Basics: Tier One services feature popular sites for news, health, employment and finance advice, and educational tools. The Facebook app was put first on the list, followed by services such as Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter and ChangeCorp’s Money Matters, SmartBusiness and SmartWoman. Tier Two services, hidden in a drop-down menu, offer more variety.

“We do not know why content on Free Basics is offered in two separate tiers, giving users instant access to Tier One, while leaving the other offerings tucked away […] When we asked Facebook why the app has this distinction, they declined to answer,” the researchers reported.

“Our case studies illuminate systemic features of Free Basics’ user interface, content offerings, and technological architecture that strictly limit the tool’s utility for many people within the populations that the company claims to reach,” Global Voices wrote.

“We also conclude that Free Basics’ architectural and content limitations are largely artificial and exist primarily as a mechanism for collecting profitable data from users.”

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