Facebook: Free Basics is an open platform, not a 'walled garden'

A smartphone runs Free Basics, an app by Facebook that provides free access to basic Internet services. It has been criticized in India for violating net neutrality. Photo by: Raul Ramirez / CC BY

At the African Diaspora Investment Symposium in Silicon Valley last weekend, a Facebook product designer talked to the audience about Free Basics, a range of online services from developers, nonprofit organizations, and governments.

“Anyone who is making a website that might be useful, and might be especially useful for people who might not otherwise be able to afford data connectivity, can go to internet.org/platform and apply to have their site included on the platform,” Jacob Berlow said before a backdrop of icons on service areas: a heart for health and safety, an apple for education, a dollar sign for economic empowerment, and of course a messenger bubble for communication.

This free online platform, available in 38 countries, is part of Internet.org, a larger initiative by Facebook to connect everyone in the world to the Web.

The presentation to diaspora leaders was part of an effort by Facebook to ensure that a ruling from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which is expected any day now, does not create a domino effect in other countries where Free Basics has launched.

Most of the Free Basics team is gathered at the Facebook offices in London this week to share successes and challenges in their work to bring more than 19 million people online. At the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, Ime Archibong, director of strategic partnerships for Facebook and head of content partnerships for Free Basics, defended the company’s approach in India.

“Our notion going into this was we have to listen to people,” Archibong said. Despite the challenges Free Basics has experienced in India, Archibong said Facebook followed its formula of launching something new, seeing how people use it, and incorporating feedback to optimize the user experience.

When India criticized the Internet.org name, claiming that it seemed like the entire World Wide Web, Facebook changed the name to Free Basics, he said. When India complained that Facebook was violating net neutrality by favoring particular websites, Free Basics created an open platform where anyone can submit their services to be included, he continued.

Archibong said that, while Free Basics launched in India with 30 websites “to make sure that the impact was there,” it was always part of the plan to open the platform up. “It was like, India wants it now? Let’s give it to them,” he said.

Ime Archibong, director of strategic partnerships at Facebook, talks about how to partner with Free Basics.  via Devex YouTube channel

Chris Daniels, vice president of Internet.org, defended the Free Basics model in a discussion at Reddit where he said Facebook has no plans to reject an application to add a service to the platform as long as the site is optimized for performance on older phones and slower network connections and in compliance with local laws and regulations.

“We don’t reserve the right to reject apps for arbitrary reasons,” he wrote.

From Reddit to the streets of India, Facebook is not going down without a fight, as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made clear in a full page opinion editorial in the “Times of India” asking, “Who could possibly be against this?”

“Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims — even if that means leaving behind a billion people,” he wrote. “Instead of recognizing the fact that Free Basics is opening up the whole internet, they continue to claim — falsely — that this will make the Internet more like a walled garden.”

Zuckerberg has admitted that he is surprised by the backlash against Free Basics, the best known program of Internet.org, which is still the name of the larger effort by Facebook to deliver data to and acquire users from new markets.

Archibong repeatedly returned to the importance of humility in Facebook's endeavors. “My goal is number one to listen,” he said. “It’s the reason we’ve become, in my opinion, such a strong partnerships company. We aren’t afraid to say that we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Facebook has recruited additional Free Basics partnerships staff who worked on global development projects ranging from mobile money for the unbanked, to reproductive health education in the Dominican Republic, to smallholder farming in Ethiopia. And Archibong is spending more and more time traveling the world meeting with the growing number of Facebook employees tasked with forming local relationships and building local buy in.

A view of the African Network Diaspora event where a a Facebook product designer talked about Free Basics. Catherine Cheney

Last weekend, as Berlow spoke with the African Diaspora Network, Archibong was in Brazil, where he spoke at the Campus Party tech conference but also met with stakeholders to scope out the startup ecosystem there.

Archibong said the current “meeting of the minds” in London is all about these regions learning what is and is not working when it comes to wiring the world.

“Regardless of how much I care about this, and I care a lot about this, we’re not going to get it right unless I have folks that are just as passionate about this in India, on the African continent, in Latin America, in Southeast Asia,” he said.

He talked about the importance of partnerships with NGOs in countries like Zambia, where the Internet.org app first launched in July 2014 with free services including public health apps from UNICEF and a women’s rights app from the local NGO Zamrize.

“They are going to be the ones who are going to say, ‘Hey, it doesn’t make sense to do X, Y, and Z here in Zambia,’” Archibong said. “‘Actually, you might not have thought of this, but A, B, and C makes more sense and will have greater impact.’”

Standing before the audience of leading entrepreneurs and investors from the African continent, Berlow highlighted three ways Facebook is working to build local buy in, beyond the billboards scattered across India, the videos highlighting the impact of Free Basics services, and the speaking tours taken by Archibong, Zuckerberg, and countless others at Facebook.

FBStart provides eligible mobile startups with tools and services to build and grow their apps, Berlow said. Through an innovation challenge for Africa, Internet.org is offering awards for apps focused on education or economic empowerment. And an incubator run by the South African Praekelt Foundation will provide 100 social change organizations with the tools they need to distribute their content on Free Basics, he said.

“It’s always been get something out and try to address the problem we think we’re uniquely situated to help on,” Archibong said. “If we get feedback that’s not the right approach, let’s take a step back and actually figure out what is the right approach and go from there.”

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.