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Basics of Free Basics

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World News Publishing Focus
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Basics of Free Basics

Facebook has lately been in the news because of the practices behind its Trending Topics section, putting the social media giant in the spotlight of the media commentary of today. But the company also has projects that speak of great ambition in providing people with ways for connecting not only with each other but to the internet in general.

We’ve put together the essential information on Free Basics, part of Facebook’s initiative, which aims to provide internet access to unconnected people around the world. Despite its seemingly philanthropic goals, Free Basics has also been severely criticised in the past, and it remains a contested way for “connecting the next billion”.

Touching on a wide range of issues beyond connectivity – such as net neutrality, zero rating practices and access to information –  Free Basics is being closely followed also by the news media. WAN-IFRA’s Global Media Policy Forum in Cartagena, Colombia, on 13 June will examine news publishers’ views on Free Basics, zero-rating and net neutrality – READ MORE.

What is Free Basics?

In 2013, Facebook launched an initiative with the goal of improving internet access around the world, with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, saying: “I believe connectivity is a human right”. The initiative was called, and provided its users free access to certain websites determined by Facebook, being crucially also functional on older devices and with limited (2G) bandwidth. was quickly attacked in the internet governance sphere for implying, because of its name, that it provided access to the full internet, and that it put Facebook in a gatekeeper role in determining which websites are listed.

In May 2015, Facebook turned into a platform, saying it would offer services in a “more transparent and inclusive” way, reducing its role as a gatekeeper.

In September 2015, the app providing free services was renamed Free Basics.

What services are included in Free Basics?

Naturally, Facebook is part of Free Basics, but the list of other services varies between countries. Wikipedia, Bing Search, Accuweather, and some others are usually included, along with information resources maintained by the local governments. Facebook especially promotes internet services for health, education, jobs and communication. In some markets, also news content might be made available.

As Facebook calls Free Basics an “open platform”, in principle anyone is allowed to submit their service for inclusion – so long as it fills the technical requirements.

What countries have Free Basics?

In total 40 countries in Africa, Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America – full list can be seen here.

What has the effect been?

It’s difficult to say exactly. Although Facebook promotes Free Basics as a way for previously unconnected people to get access to the internet, there is also evidence of Free Basics being used basically as a promotion tool by mobile operators and hardly expanding internet connectivity.

Why is Free Basics contested?

The foremost issue concerns net neutrality principles. Net neutrality is the concept that all data should be treated equally, without unjustified blocking, throttling or payments. (To learn more about net neutrality, see the funny explainers we’ve collected.)

The key issue is, by giving Free Basics users access to some data for free, Facebook is said to divide the internet into “accessible” and “non-accessible” parts, which could accelerate internet fragmentation. Supporters of net neutrality would argue that any access to the internet should include the full internet, not just Facebook-approved parts of it. On the other hand, Zuckerberg himself has warned against “an extreme definition of net neutrality”, and that “intellectual purity of technology” should not be put above people’s needs.

Another issue is that by defining which services are included, Facebook could still exercise control over what information can be accessed. Some have also seen a hint of colonialistic attitude in Facebook’s relationships with emerging markets, while others highlight the undeniable business benefits that Facebook might reap by being the portal for new internet users.

On the other hand, it could be argued that giving internet access, even if in a limited fashion, to a wider number of users has civic value. Free Basics could indeed be recognized as having a role in fostering freedom of information, trumping the concerns mentioned above.

For one good summary of what the main issues of Free Basics are, see this article.

Has Free Basics been opposed in the markets it entered?

In India the local telecoms regulator TRAI decided to ban Free Basics on the account of it being in violation of net neutrality principles. TRAI’s decision was preceded by a particularly animated debate, during which Free Basics was for instance called “just a Facebook proxy targeting India’s poor”.

India was seen as a serious setback for Facebook, as Zuckerberg had previously been open about Facebook’s ambitions in the country: “If you really have a mission of connecting every person in the world you can’t do that without connecting people in India,” he said.

Also Egypt has banned Free Basics, but for notably different reasons: it has been suggested that Facebook didn’t allow the Egyptian government to spy on Free Basics users, leading to the service being banned.

Is Free Basics an opportunity for news publishers to reach new audiences?

It could be, for instance if it provides a way of connecting to audiences that were previously unavailable. But will news media agree with the principles of the service, especially with regard to the net neutrality question? Will they see risks in somehow submitting their content to Facebook’s control?

(Image source)


Teemu Henriksson's picture

Teemu Henriksson


2016-05-17 12:08

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The news publishing industry is experiencing transformation at an ever-growing pace, with new policy issues arising as the landscape changes.

We will be examining policy discussions that will define the news publishing environment of the future, the key topics being internet governance, privacy and copyright. Click here to learn more about our work.

WAN-IFRA Media Policy team and experts.

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