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Facebook’s Free Basics program aims to help bridge the digital divide through a mobile-based platform that allows users to connect to a handful of online services free of charge. In a vision statement for the program, Facebook surmises 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.”
The program has been the subject of controversy since its inception, reviving the debate over open access and the digital divide.
With a few exceptions, the voices of the program's users, along with those of local experts on ICT and access to knowledge in the countries where the program has been launched, have been underrepresented in these debates.
This study aims to begin correcting this imbalance, to increase the public, ICT and digital rights sectors’ knowledge about the utility of Free Basics and to encourage further research on the topic. Our team of Global Voices contributors hailing from six countries in the Global South tested and evaluated the Free Basics app and reviewed existing literature about it in their countries. We measured Free Basics against a collectively developed set of benchmarks concerning usability, quality of connection, language and accessibility, content, and company policies. We conducted all of our research locally from within the countries where Free Basics is deployed, assessing the app within the local and cultural context where it is offered.
Our research casts doubt upon Facebook’s contention that this technology is truly serving as an “on ramp” to the global internet. 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. 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.