Free Basics, originally known as Internet.org, is a global initiative led by Facebook to bring Internet connectivity to "diverse, local communities".  The project is combined effort between seven major telecommunication companies, including Ericsson, Mediatek, Opera, Samsung, facebook, Nokia, and Qualcomm.
Renamed in 2015 September, Free Basics was originally only the name of the app delivering the service.
The project's goal is that "Free Basics introduces people to the internet and they move on to explore the entire internet." Speaking on the project, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has said, "Connectivity can't only be a privilege for some of the rich and powerful; it needs to be something that everyone shares."
The non-profit has identified three major areas for exploration, including:
- Affordability: Supporters will work together to ensure access to the Internet isn't a barrier.
- Efficiency: Supporters will build and strengthen the infrastructure needed to keep the Internet stable.
- Business Models: Developers, mobile operators and device manufacturers will work together to introduce business models that give people more ways to go online."
First Year of Operation
Free Basics marked its one-year anniversary in Zambia, where it first began working with the telecommunications company Airtel. Zuckerberg says this partnership allowed got "hundreds of thousands of people access to some basic services for health, education, jobs, communication".
Rebranding from Internet.org to Free Basics
In 2015 September, Internet.org was renamed "Free Basics by Facebook", to highlight the significance of its overhauls. With the renaming came a revamped website, moved from Internet.org to FreeBasics.com, and featuring options for location targeting. This allowed users in Asia, Africa, and Latin America could choose the serves they wishes to activate and access in their region.
The rebrand and new Free Basics app also supported secure HTTPS services, and included privacy language "so that users will know what data will be collected". Users were also given the option on the app or mobile web version to add a number of free services, provided from a list of more than 250 providers.
Facebook also operates a lesser-known project called Express Wi-Fi, which encourages local entrepreneurs to purchase inexpensive hardware and set up public Wi-Fi networks. As of 2016 April, Express Wi-Fi was only available in India, and some critics believe it to be a better and more free solution than Free Basics. Some also cite one of Google's Wi-Fi, which will operate in partnership with Indian Railways and RailTel to bring Wi-Fi to over 100 railways in India by the end of 2016, as competition to Free Basics and Express Wi-Fi.
One year after the launch of Free Basics, Facebook was working with more than a dozen mobile operators across 17 countries to give more than a billion people "access to relevant basic internet services without data charges". By 2016 April, the service was offered in the following 37 countries,via the following operators:
|Africa & Middle East
||Asia Pacific||Latin America|
Criticisms & Controversies
Since its launch in 2013, several net neutrality activists have criticized Free Basics for its "zero rating", which means offering preferential treatment of certain websites or streaming services over others. This main criticism -- that Free Basics had a limited number of partners and only a single service provider -- is one that Faceook has contested. According to Chris Daniels, Vice President of Internet.org, "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."
Access Numbers & First-Time Users
Another controversial point is the possibility of inflated numbers of connectivity. At a 2015 December town hall held at the Indian Institute of Technology in Dalhi, Zuckerberg said that Free Basics had brought 15 million users online, a million of which came from India. According to Mashable, Zuckerberg also claimed that half of the people who came to Free Basics opted to pay to access the whole Internet -- but these numbers did not take into account that most users of Free Basics already had a data plan and were not first-time internet users.
Yet a BuzzFeed News survey of the mobile operators that implement Free Basics around the world found that, in multiple markets, Free Basics could be used by local telecoms "as a way to give themselves an edge over competitors... these telecoms view and market Free Basics as an alluring offering for digitally savvy but cash-strapped consumers." The companies surveyed were not willing to give exact connectivity numbers, but interviews with employees suggested that most subscribers used Free Basics to access Facebook for free or when they ran out of data credits.
In fact, according to Antonia Graham, head of Digicel, the Free Basics provider in Panama, paying accounts that run out of data are automatically pushed to the Free Basics webpage. Likewise, an unnamed manager at the Korek telecommunications in Iraq reveals, "I would say that I have had no customers who are new to the internet who come in asking me about Free Basics... if you ask me, 'Is this program for people who don't have the internet?' my answer is no.'"
Case Study: India
When Facebook first began operations in India, only 15% of its population of 1.1 billion people had access to the internet. Free Basics' potential in India had initially seemed quite large.In 2015 September, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi had said in a town hall at Facebook's headquarters that "India has 600,000 villages, and most people get scared when they hear this number. My vision is to connect them all with optical fiber cable in the next five years.
Nonetheless, in 2016 February, Free Basics was banned from the cotnyr for "discriminatory tariffs for data services", aka zero rating". This came after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) called for Reliance Communications, Facebook's Indian telecom partner, to stop Free Basics in 2015 December.
Following the shutdown, Facebook reportedly spent millions on advertising and had an op-ed published by CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the Times of India, entitled "Free Basics Protects Net Neutrality".
In the op-ed, Zuckerberg says, "We've heard legitimate concerns in the past, and we've quickly addressed those. We're open to other approaches and encourage innovation. But today this program is creating huge benefits for people and the entire internet ecosystem. There’s no valid basis for denying people the choice to use Free Basics, and that’s what thousands of people across India have chosen to tell TRAI over the last few weeks... Choose facts over false claims. Everyone deserves access to the internet. Free basic internet services can help achieve this. Free Basics should stay to help achieve digital equality for India."
In his counter argument to Zuckerberg, entitled "It’s a battle for internet freedom", Nikhil Pahwa, a volunteer at savetheinternet.in, questions, "Why has Facebook chosen the current model for Free Basics, which gives users a selection of around a hundred sites (including a personal blog and a real estate company homepage), while rejecting the option of giving the poor free access to the open, plural and diverse web?"
Case Study: Egypt
Following the actions of India, at the end of 2015 December, Egypt also pulled the plug on Facebook, which had been launched two years prior with the local telecommunications company, Etisalat Egypt. Facebook estimated that this shutdown resulted in the loss of internet for 3 million people in Egypt. Etsilat Egypt and the Egyptian government declined to comment to AP about the shutdown.
Case Study: Peru
Peru began offering Free Basics in 2015 September, though the telecommunications operator Entel, though it was not without national controversy. Miguel Cassinelli, manager of institutional relations and sustainability for Entel, said the issue of whether Free Basics complies with Peruvian net neutrality regulations was to be discussed by the country's regulatory body. Countries like Chile, which have banned "zero rating", are not offering Free Basics at all.
- Announcing the Internet.org Platform. Retrieved 12 Nov 2015.
- "Facebook renames Internet.org as 'Free Basics', offers open platform for developers, IndianExpress.com. Published 2015 September 27. Retrieved 2016 April 20.
- Facebook renames Internet.org as "Free Basics", offers open platform for developers, IndianExpress.com. Published 2015 September 27. Retrieved 2016 April 20.
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- Facebook renames Internet.org as ‘Free Basics’, offers open platform for developers, IndianExpress.com. Published 2015 September 27. Retrieved 2016 April 23.
- Why India rejected Facebook's 'free' version of the Internet, Mashable.com. Published 2016 February 9. Retrieved 2016 April 23.
- Bringing the Internet to more Indians—starting with 10 million rail passengers a day, Google.com. Published 2015 September 27. Updated 2016 April 25.
- Where We've Launched, Internet.org. Retrieved 2016 April 23.
- Here's How Free Basics Is Actually Being Sold Around The World, Buzzfeed.com. Published 2016 January 27. Retrieved 2016 April 23.
- India bans Facebook's 'Free Basics' service, EnGadget.com. Published 2016 February 8. Retrieved 2016 April 20.
- Free Basics Protects Net Neutrality, IndiaTimes.com. Published 2015 December 28. Retrieved 2016 April 23.
- It's a Battle for Internet Freedom, IndiaTimes.com. Published 2015 December 28. Retrieved 2016 April 23.
- Free Internet service for over 3 million Egyptians shut down, AP.org. Published 2015 December 30. Retrieved 2016 April 23.