Facebook, which has been facing criticism from some quarters in India for its Internet.org service, has renamed its free Internet platform as the Free Basics app. The app and web platform, providing access to over 250 services, is now live in 19 countries including India and will be part of the “larger objectives” of Internet.org. All developers will be free to add their apps on the platform as long as they meet the technical criteria.
Chris Daniels, vice-president of Internet.org, said the idea was to create a “differentiation” from the wider objectives of Internet.org. “We want to give people access to a few free basics services on the Internet and we know they will quickly understand the value of the Internet,” he said during an interaction at Facebook’s new office in Menlo Park. Interestingly, the announcement comes days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s town hall with Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the sprawling new campus.
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In a post a few hours later, Zuckerberg said Facebook has “listened to feedback from the community” and made “significant improvements to Internet.org”. “Connectivity is not and end in itself. It is what they do with it that matters…,” he wrote in the post, which cited the example of Asif Mujhawar, a soybean farmer in rural Maharashtra.
Daniels clarified that the Free Basics app was “not a destination for people, but a digital literacy tool”. The number of people who move on to the full Internet is eight times more than the number of people who stay on with the free service, he said.
Since its India launch this May, Internet.org had come in for criticism for being a “walled garden” for its limited number of partners and single service provider. Daniels said the Free Basics was now open to all developers and there was no intention of putting a filter on it. “Also, there is no exclusivity with Reliance in India. There are other telecom operators who are interested, but it seems the criticism has slowed down the conversation. Reliance is just our first partner in India and there are countries where we have multiple partners,” he clarified.
Daniels said Facebook does not pay service providers for the data and “no money changes hands”. “The commercial benefit for service providers is that people move on to paid services soon,” he added, adding that the platform was open for competing brands or organisations to come on board. On reports that Facebook was the most used service on Internet.org, Daniels said it was only natural that the social networking service’s popularity would reflect even in this platform.
Among the new features in the FreeBasics app is the option for users on the app or the mobile web version to add the services which they want to add to their list of free services from the list of 250 plus partners. Moreover, the mobile web version will also support the secure HTTPS services from now on. Facebook has also put out the privacy language “so that people will know what data will be collected”.
Ime Archibong, director product partnerships, said the fact that over 30 new Indian partners have signed up shows how there were a lot of people passionate about the cause. Among the new services on the platform are English Dost, MeraDoctor, M-Kisan, My Rights and SkyMet. While Facebook will not have advertisements on the platform, Archibong said the partners were free to do what they wanted. “We don’t want to prohibit any business model.”
Daniels said initiatives like Internet.org were necessary as a majority of the word is not connected and the rate at which new users are coming online is coming down. “The ecosystem is not going to solve this,” he said, adding that India, for instance, had over a billion people not connected to the Internet.
Facebook lists the barriers to adoption of Internet as infrastructure, affordability and awareness and is experimenting with solar powered aircraft and terrestrial services to plug the gaps in connectivity across the world.
The writer is in San Francisco on the invitation of Facebook which is paying for accommodation and travel.