Facebook, which has been facing criticism from some quarters in India for its Internet.org service, has opened up 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. 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.
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.
Reacting to the criticism in India, Daniels said the free internet platform was now open and they had 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. He said the platform was open for competing brands or organisations to come on board.
Among the new features in the Free Basics 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 in India, for instance, there are over a billion people not connected in India. Facebook lists the barriers to adoption of the internet as infrastructure, affordability and awareness.
The writer is in San Francisco on the invitation of Facebook which is paying for accommodation and travel.