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Can Facebook's Free Basics app connect the next billion?

Now active in 63 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America

Global Voices 

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In 2015, rolled out a plan to help bridge the digital divide in developing countries with a mobile app called “Free Basics”.

The 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, has become a part of Facebook's ascent to becoming the most popular and powerful social platform on earth. Thirteen years after going live, 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. is an important piece of this strategy.

On their promotional website for the app, 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, 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.

With this research, we aim to increase public awareness, as well as digital rights and Information Communication sector knowledge about the utility of in the countries where it has been deployed.

Our key findings:

  • might not speak your language: does not meet the linguistic needs of target users. No version of the program tested in our study adequately served the linguistic needs of the local population. In heavily multilingual countries including and Philippines, the app is offered in only one local language.
  • features little local content, but plenty of corporate services from the US and UK. includes a relatively small amount of content relevant to local issues and needs, lacking public service sites and independent news sources. It also does not include an email platform.
  • doesn't connect you to the global internet – but it does collect your data: collects unique streams of user metadata from all user activities on Free Basics, not just the activities of users who are logged into The company collects information about which third-party sites users access, when, and for how long.
  • violates net neutrality principles: does not allow users to browse the open Internet. It offers access to a small set of services and prioritizes the app by actively urging users to sign-up for and log into the service. also divides third-party services into two tiers, giving greater visibility to one set of information over another.
  • Some internet is better than none — but not on Facebook's terms: Global Voices research findings suggest that most of the content offered via will not meet the most pressing needs of those who are not online, and that the data and content limitations built into are largely artificial and primarily aimed at collecting profitable data from users.

About the research

We measured 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 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.


This article, written by Oiwan Lam, was published on Global Voices on 27 July, 2017

First Published: Fri, July 28 2017. 08:50 IST
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