Facebook’s Free Basics Internet service closed down in India and Egypt

Facebook Free Basics is a platform that attempts to provide basic internet (on mobile devices) to around a billion people across Asia, Africa, and South America. ‘Free Basics makes the internet accessible to more people by providing them access to a range of free basic services like news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information.’ A seemingly worthy project that has the support of the NonGovernment Organisation Telecom Watchdog (TW),

‘Any proposal that offers free services to general public including the one being offered by Facebook under the brand “Free Basics” should not be rejected.’

Unfortunately for Mark Zuckerberg, Free Basics has recently run into some hurdles both in Egypt and India. In Egypt, where the service was shut down on Wednesday, the service had been rolled out to around three million people (of which one million had never connected to the Internet before). Facebook spokeswoman, Ashley Zandy, has commented on the company’s frustration at the shutdown of the project in the North African nation, which had been running (in partnership with telecom carrier Etisalat) for just two months,

‘We’re disappointed that Free Basics is no longer available in Egypt as of December 30, 2015. We are committed to expanding internet access into the unconnected in Egypt and around the world and hope to resolve this situation soon.’

So why is the seemingly positive service running into problems and criticism? In India, critics of Facebook’s service feel that the project serves the company rather than the people – with a number of Internet privacy advocates complaining that it unfairly harms net neutrality on the sub-continent by only providing partial internet access (including the use of Facebook and Whatsapp).

In an open letter to Facebook published on Wednesday, dozens of Internet rights group (led by the American digital rights organization Access Now) came forward to complain about the service,

‘If you think access to the Internet is a right like access to health care and clean drinking water, then Facebook should support affordable access to the entire Internet for everyone, not access only to those services that Facebook or its partners deem acceptable.’

Zuckerberg has this week attempted to contend with the cynical view of his free Internet service in an article that appeared in the Times of India, where he wrote,

‘Instead of welcoming Free Basics as an open platform that will partner with any telco, and allows any developer to offer services to people for free, they claim — falsely — that this will give people less choice. Instead of recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim — falsely — the exact opposite. We know that when people have access to the internet, they also get access to jobs, education, healthcare, communication. We know that for every ten people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty. We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet.That’s not theory. That’s fact.’

While net neutrality is cited as the reason for the closure of the project in much of India, for now, there is uncertainty as to why the service has been brought down in Egypt. Despite the overblown criticism of Facebook’s service in India, one has to wonder how a free Internet service (that has made Internet available to around one million Egyptians for the first time) can be such a bad thing – surely something is better than nothing – even if that service does expose people to Facebook as a standard?

While I am not denying the ‘walled garden’ argument, and it is obvious that Facebook does have an expansion of its service carefully interwoven into the fabric of Free Basics. Until the third world locations that Zuckerberg has introduced his limited internet service to can provide a more comprehensive service, then it remains true that it is still providing a communications improvement where there was none.

Carrie Mihalcik writes that ‘free basic Internet service in India has hit an old-fashioned snag: People don’t believe they’re getting something for nothing,’ and she may well be correct in her assertion. Arguably, however, considering the impact of the service being offered without data charges, one could argue that a rather different old fashioned saying comes to mind – don’t look a gift horse in the mouth – because as Zuckerberg rightly points out,

‘We have collections of free basic books. They’re called libraries. They don’t contain every book, but they still provide a world of good.’

Ray Walsh I am a freelance journalist and blogger from England. I am highly interested in politics and in particular the subject of IR and I am an advocate for freedom of speech, equality and personal privacy. On a more personal level I like to stay active, love snowboarding, swimming and cycling, enjoy seafood and love to listen to trap music.

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7 responses to “Facebook’s Free Basics Internet service closed down in India and Egypt

  1. Free Basics is a lethal combination which will lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their own public utility – the internet. The proposal is such a lethal combination, having several deep flaws, beneath the veil of altruism wrapped around it in TV and other media advertisements

  2. The major flaw in the model, is that Facebook would be able to decrypt the contents of the ‘basic’ apps on its servers. This flaw is not visible to the lay person as it’s a technical detail, but it has deep and disturbing implications

  3. The term ‘free’ in ‘Free Basics’ is a marketing gimmick. If you see an ad which says ‘buy a bottle of hair oil, get a comb free’, you know that the cost of the comb is added somewhere. If something comes for free, its cost has to appear somewhere else. Telecom operators will have to recover the cost of ‘Free Basic’ apps from the non-free services (otherwise, why not make everything free?). So effectively, whatever Facebook does not consider ‘basic’ will cost more

  4. A concept like Free Basics is the worst thing any company would ever offer. Suppose a chocolate company wishes to provide ‘free basic food’ for all Indians, but retains control of what constitutes ‘basic’ food – this would clearly be absurd. Further, if the same company defines its own brand of ‘toffee’ as a ‘basic’ food, it would be doubly absurd and its motives highly questionable. Facebook’s Free Basics are neither Free nor Basic. It will eventually find a way to extract profit from the users like applying high rates to “Non-Basic” websites.

  5. Fcaebook is not giving free internet to anybody. They give access only to and a few other sites, which increases their membership and not really help poor people. THAT is against net neutrality. If they want to give internet they should give access to all the websites. That is why they were stopped.

  6. I’m betting they were shut down because the governments of those countries, Egypt in particular, have little control or surveillance options when it comes to internet run by FB. as opposed to a state-run ISP. From what I’ve read, Egypt’s gov’t. is just a bit oppressive.

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