A history of Facebook’s highly controversial, completely audacious, and possibly best-intentioned program, Free Basics.
On a Tuesday afternoon in May 2010, a Facebook program manager named Sid Murlidhar published a blog post announcing “another way for people to access Facebook anytime, anywhere.” It was called 0.Facebook, literally a URL you could type into your mobile phone’s browser that called up a stripped-down, quick-loading, text-only version of Facebook — accessible only as long as you were using a participating mobile operator.
It was a big deal, much bigger than most people realized at the time. The fast, bare-bones version of Facebook made it more usable for people living in the poorly connected locations it rolled out in — countries like India, Uganda, and Bolivia. More importantly, 0.Facebook could be accessed for free in those countries, without any associated data costs, thanks to deals Facebook made with carriers. The internet? That would cost you —but 0.Facebook was free of charge.
“We hope that even more people will discover the mobile internet with Facebook,” Murlidhar wrote that day. They certainly did. And from that moment on, it’s been Facebook’s policy to work with mobile operators to offer some form of its site for free.
Over time, the seeds planted with 0.Facebook grew into a much more ambitious fruit, called Internet.org. Internet.org includes an array of technology solutions to bring the world online — things like drones to bring connectivity to rural regions where there is no infrastructure, and affordable smartphones. But its best-known element is something called Free Basics, which serves up versions of Facebook and other services, like Wikipedia and the weather, that don’t count against a person’s mobile data plan. It is very much the progeny of 0.Facebook.
Yet more than five years later, the policy Murlidhar helped introduce is at the center of a global backlash. When Internet.org launched, it was lauded for bringing the world online. A New York Times headline from August 2013, for example, proclaimed, “Facebook Leads an Effort to Lower Barriers to Internet Access.” Yet just two years later, in October 2015, another headline from the Times would note that “Facebook’s Internet for All Is a Tough Sell in India.”
Indeed, Free Basics is in grave peril in India, where it has already been suspended and now faces a permanent ban. Egypt has already pulled the plug on Free Basics entirely, for reasons that remain unclear. A host of international partners — including Samsung, Qualcomm, and Ericsson — have essentially disappeared from the Internet.org site. Meanwhile, partnerships with competing companies like Google and Twitter — which would have lent credibility to Facebook’s argument that Free Basics is open to everyone — never materialized. In short, Facebook’s massive push to bring the world online has hit a wall of activists and government regulators who argue that its free service violates basic principles of an open, free, and fair internet.
Here’s how it all went down.
The Zero in the Beginning
0.Facebook, also known as Facebook Zero, was hatched by a team within Facebook in charge of growing the platform, along with its mobile partnership team. By mid-2010, the company had moved from college campuses to the general American public and then to Europe. And though Facebook was not yet close to its current 1.5 billion monthly active users, its addressable market in the developed world had started looking saturated. So when Facebook began seeing people in emerging markets join the platform via low-cost phones and plans, operating on slower speeds and thinner wallets, it realized it needed to find some way to tap this immense pool of potential new users. The answer was 0.Facebook.
The introduction of 0.Facebook, a product clearly geared toward growth, was uncontroversial. TechCrunch was characteristically optimistic about its prospects: “This mobile site could play a big role in Facebook’s growth going forward, especially given the predictions that browser-equipped mobile phones will be more abundant than PCs in the not-too-distant future,” Jason Kincaid wrote.
Riding on smooth seas, 0.Facebook reached more than 50 operators in dozens of countries, without causing much of a stir. But there was another fundamental problem that Facebook still needed to address. Most of the new users it saw coming online weren’t doing so with Android or iOS handsets, where you could just download the Facebook app from an app store, but on so-called “feature phones.”
These feature phones might be best thought of as the Nissan Versa to the iPhone’s Tesla Model S. These handsets often had very limited memory and processing power — which meant there wasn’t enough horsepower for robust applications. What’s more, they came in a thousand different varieties, with custom interfaces that often required specialized builds. In short, you couldn’t just build a one-size-fits-all app for feature phones.
Facebook addressed this feature phone problem with an acquisition. On March 20, 2011, Israeli newspapers Calcalist and TheMarker reported that Facebook agreed to acquireSnaptu, a small Israeli technology startup. Snaptu had mastered development for feature phones by figuring out how to run applications largely on the server side, with just a thin layer on the handset itself. Months earlier, Facebook had completed a feature phone app launch in partnership with Snaptu, which built the app to work across more than 2,500 devices. To keep expanding within the very large feature phone market — which thenaccounted for 80% of mobile phones — Facebook decided to bring the master builders in house.
An article about the Snaptu acquisition in The Guardiannoted how important the Snaptu-built app was for Facebook’s global expansion plans. The app, it said, “brought Facebook capabilities to feature phones in countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Poland, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Tunisia, Dominican Republic and Romania, with carriers in Canada, India, Mexico, Brazil and Bulgaria also planned.”
The Snaptu acquisition was a critical component of Facebook’s strategy to grow in emerging markets. But it wasn’t enough to just enter these markets: Facebook needed to get people, many of whom had limited means and had never used the internet previously, to download and try its app. So when Facebook launched its Snaptu-built app, it enlisted 14 mobile carriers to offer 90 days of free use.
After the acquisition, Snaptu’s CEO, Ran Makavy, moved to Facebook with the title of growth manager. His LinkedIn profile offers a preview of what came next: “Started internet.org, looking at connecting the next 5 billion people to the Internet.” (A Facebook spokesperson confirmed Makavy was part of the team that started Internet.org.)
Snaptu Meets Zero Rating
By November 2012, Facebook began posting a new free data offer every month or so on its page for Facebook for Every Phone (or FB4E), the enhanced and renamed version of the Snaptu-built app. In a message geared to Kenyans, for instance, Facebook pitched: “Tell your friends and family on Safaricom to join Facebook and they can access it for free for 90 days.” Offers to people in India, Guatemala, Mexico, and others followed.
It’s worth noting that Facebook did not actually pay for the waived data charges for FB4E promotions and 0.Facebook. Operators provided the data free of charge, viewing Facebook as a gateway to customers who might, after getting a taste of free data, opt to pay for the full meal. And clearly, FB4E was a hit: By early 2014, it had more than 100 million active users.
Facebook wasn’t the only company engaged in such efforts. Google, Twitter, and others were launching their own zero-rated (meaning no data charge applied) apps at the same time. In November 2012, for instance, Google introduced the Google Free Zone, providing free data access for search, Gmail, and Google+.
The Google program rolled out first in the Philippines in partnership with operator Globe Telecom. Months afterward, Facebook began working with Globe as well, developing the groundwork for a more ambitious program.
“We started some experiments in the Philippines, with Globe, and we quickly iterated, and we decided that what we were going to do was we were going to give people access to an entire set of free basic services,” Facebook product VP Chris Daniels told BuzzFeed news in a phone interview.
Internet.org Is Born
Throughout their history, Facebook’s zero-rating initiatives had been both uncontroversial and unabashedly self-serving. But on Aug. 20, 2013, that all changed, even if it wasn’t immediately obvious. That’s when Facebook announced Internet.org. Its stated goal wasn’t platform growth, but “making internet access available to the next 5 billion people.”
With Internet.org, Facebook had added ennobling traits to its raw ambition. Its zero-rating programs, which had previously been nakedly aimed at attracting new users, were now part of a larger effort to build out the infrastructure and lower the costs associated with bringing the world online. The effort was cast in altruistic terms and included a global coalition that could have come right out of Colin Powell’s playbook.
In fact Facebook was the only American partner at Internet.org’s launch. Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, and Samsung all signed on as founding members, their logos prominently displayed on its site. A blog post on Facebook’s website said these companies would work to connect the next 5 billion people via a number of methods, citing everything from decreasing data use requirements from apps, to building new hardware like low-cost smartphones. A zero-rated program was to be included as well.
“Everything Facebook has done has been about giving all people around the world the power to connect,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced. “Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it.”
Two factors contributed to Facebook’s broader efforts. First, pushing into emerging markets made Facebook aware just how massive a problem connectivity was in many regions of the world. Zuckerberg himself became invested in solving the issue, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The Facebook CEO knew the problem was bigger than the company could solve on its own. Second, Facebook realized a significant lift was required to get operators across the world to offer data for free. These operators were still making money from text messaging fees, for example, and they did not see much incentive to offer access to a communication platform like Facebook Messenger at no cost. A global, strongly branded initiative with a number of powerful partners had a better chance to help Facebook win that argument.
“For Facebook it was always known that the company alone couldn’t tackle this issue, that we had to find a way to work with the ecosystem to bring down the barriers to access,” the person with knowledge of Internet.org’s origins said. “It was always meant to find out how we can bring the ecosystem together to spread connectivity. And for that reason, it had to have a greater mission.”
From this point on, Facebook’s free internet efforts took on a more evangelical tone. Facebook wasn’t out to simply grow its own platform, the company would say; it was out to help the world. (And sure, what would help the world would also help Facebook.)
Today, Internet.org is behind a number of different connectivity initiatives, from a discounted Wi-Fi program, called Express Wi-Fi, to Aquila, a drone that can fly for months and beam down internet to those below. Yet its most prominent initiative is its zero-rated app, now called Free Basics, which contains the “entire set of free basic services,” Facebook’s product VP Daniels said. Both Facebook and Facebook Messenger are included.
From Org to App
In October 2013, less than two months after Internet.org was announced, Facebook acquired Onavo, another Israeli startup working to make data use more efficient.
Nine months later, Onavo co-founder and CEO Guy Rosen — now a Facebook product management director whose LinkedIn profile reads “Internet.org, Growth, Onavo and more cool stuff” — wrote a blog post, in July 2014, introducing the Internet.org app. The app included zero-rated access to a handful of sites and services, including AccuWeather, Go Zambia Jobs, and Wikipedia. Facebook and Facebook Messenger were, of course, included as well. The app launched first in Zambia.
“By providing free basic services via the app, we hope to bring more people online and help them discover valuable services they might not have otherwise,” Rosen wrote.
After the app launched in Zambia, Facebook’s Internet.org team spent the rest of 2014 rolling it out in more countries — Kenya and Tanzania — and building support in India, Facebook’s second-largest market. In October 2014, Facebook held its first Internet.org Summit in India, with Mark Zuckerberg keynoting. While in India for the summit, Zuckerberg met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “discuss the importance of connectivity in India,” according Internet.org’s Facebook page. Modi, in a Facebook post of his own, called the meeting “wonderful.”
In February 2015, the Internet.org app (which would be subsequently renamed Free Basics by Facebook) came to India. An intense backlash soon followed.
Philanthrocapitalism Isn’t a Great Marketing Term
Internet.org was born of growth initiatives, and it never lost that DNA. From its launch through today, the program has never been entirely about business or about altruism, but rather a convenient if sometimes uncomfortable marriage of the two. Zuckerberg captured the awkwardness beautifully in a quote published in the New York Times the day of its Aug. 20 launch: “We’re focused on it more because we think it’s something good for the world,” he said, “rather than something that is going to be really amazing for our profits.”
Facebook employees consistently employ this tone, pushing the altruistic aspects of Internet.org while tacitly acknowledging the business benefits, when asked about the program’s business goals. “My mission is to connect people,” Munish Seth, who heads Facebook’s connectivity efforts in India, told the New York Times in a story about Express Wi-Fi. “We hope they will connect to Facebook, but that’s not the primary mission,” he said.
Playing up altruism while playing down profit motives soon became a point of discontent among some people in the regions where Internet.org operates. Facebook, they argue, is trying to win support for a business effort by passing it off as something charitable.
“That’s how Facebook is positioning it every single day in its advertising campaigns across India — that it’s a philanthropic venture — whereas it’s not a nonprofit,” Nikhil Pahwa, co-founder of Savetheinternet.in, a group opposed to Internet.org, told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “It’s a business venture, through and through.”
At times, the efforts have bordered on brazen. Carolina Botero, CEO of the Karisma Foundation, a Colombian digital rights organization, said Internet.org has been positioned within Colombia as a public policy initiative, getting endorsed as such by the country’s top government officials. “You cannot present a marketing strategy as an important public policy in a country,” she said. “If it’s going to be a market strategy, then do it as a market strategy and we can deal with that. But when you mix it with the public policies, it’s a whole world that opens that is not good.”
A Facebook spokesperson said that while Colombian government services were included in the country’s version of Free Basics, and Mark Zuckerberg did indeed appear with Colombia’s president, Facebook itself never pitched Internet.org as a public policy solution.
Asked if Facebook’s positioning of the program may have caused it problems, Facebook’s Daniels rejected the notion. “I think it’s good for Facebook and good for the world. And whether we should have led with one or the other — or whether your perception is that we led with one or the other — is neither here nor there,” he argued.
“The result of bringing more people online is good for the world,” Daniels continued. “More ideas are shared. It’s good for the entire internet ecosystem. Once people come online they discover and seek more services that they can use online. And it is also good for Facebook, there’s no question about that. When more people come online, those are more potential Facebook users. I don’t think we’ve shied away from the fact that this is going to be good for Facebook, but I also don’t think that we should be shying away from the fact that it’s going to be good for the world as well, to bring more people online.”
A Battle Erupts Over the Open Web
In the short history of zero-rating, free data access has been given away largely via two methods: to make specific apps or websites available at no cost, or to give people a limited amount of data for free. Essentially, if the entire internet can’t be accessed at all times, the choice is to either make a limited set of services available permanently or make the whole thing available temporarily. Facebook, via its Internet.org app, chose the former strategy, partnering with mobile operators to provide permanent accesss to limited services. This led to accusations that the company was trying to pick the internet’s winners and losers, with itself among the winners.
Criticism of this sort emerged in India almost immediately after the introduction of the Internet.org app. “The very concept of having a limited number of partners or web services immediately puts competing services or apps at a disadvantage,” an article onTech2, an Indian technology website, stated in March.
Even a small head start in an emerging market can matter a lot, both for nascent startups and for established companies like Facebook. As more people join, services enjoy a “network effect”: everyone uses it because everyone uses it. This makes competition more difficult — why would you ever use social service B, when all your friends and family are already on social service A? Building these network effects in emerging markets would make Facebook a fact of life in those regions as well.
Facebook itself directly argues this in a Free Basics FAQ it hosts on its developers site. In answer to the question “Why would I want to add my service to Free Basics?” Facebook responds that “[b]y adding your website to Free Basics, you can grow your audience by providing affordable access to your services, scale the social impact you’re already creating, and establish your brand early in emerging markets.”
Net neutrality advocates, understanding this, have been particularly critical of Facebook’s zero-rating approach. And as Facebook’s ambitions grew, so did those advocates’ power and influence, thanks to a slew of global victories that occurred around the same time. The wins, including sweeping global rejections of “fast lane” initiatives, emboldened the activists, and they next turned their ire to programs like the Internet.org app, whose subsidized data costs for some sites were viewed as anticompetitive, much like the better connection speeds of the fast lanes.
At the end of March 2015, Indian regulator TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) posted a 118-page-long consultation paper with many open questions about net neutrality topics. The paper asked for feedback on a number of questions including “over-the-top” services like WhatsApp and Skype that allow texting and calling via the internet and not traditional telco pipes, leading advocates to believe TRAI was considering action allowing mobile operators to charge them extra fees, violating the spirit of net neutrality.
“My first reaction was, we’re fucked,” Savetheinternet.in’s Pahwa told BuzzFeed News, using a line he’s repeated numerous times. But ultimately, the paper energized the activists.
In April 2015, net neutrality advocates took on and defeated commerce behemoth Flipkart’s plans to join a zero-rated program offered by telecommunications company Airtel. When the first wave of criticism hit, Flipkart CEO Sachin Bansal defended his company’s plans to join the program. But the outrage quickly became unbearable, and Flipkart withdrew, releasing a statement in favor of net neutrality and taking a veiled shot at Facebook in the process. “We will be working towards ensuring that the spirit of net neutrality is upheld and applied equally to all companies in India irrespective of the size or the service being offered and there is absolutely no discrimination whatsoever,” it said.
Facebook did not make it through April unscathed. That month, a handful of partnerswithdrew from Internet.org’s zero-rating initiatives, citing net neutrality concerns. These included the travel planning site Cleartrip, news station NDTV, and the Times Group (publisher of Times of India), which left a few of its properties in, citing competitive pressures. “We will lead the drive towards a neutral internet, but we need our fellow publishers and content providers to do so as well, so that the playing field continues to be level,” a Times official said in a post.
Pahwa pointed to the Times Group’s statement as evidence of the power Facebook is accumulating via the app. “It’s a prisoner’s dilemma,” he said. “Who moves first? Nobody wants to move.”
The app creates two separate levels of the internet, he said, voicing the main line of criticism against Internet.org from net neutrality advocates. One level is Facebook and its partners, offered free of data charges, and on the other is everyone else, at an inherent disadvantage, Pahwa argued.
“In India it’s not about the speed of connectivity, it’s about the cost of connectivity,” he explains. “If you don’t pay anything to access Facebook and its partners, they have a competitive advantage.”
As Zuckerberg watched the discontent brewing in April, he hit back in a Facebook post on the 16th, where he argued that Internet.org does not violate the principles of net neutrality. “Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity,” he wrote. “Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide.”
The post did little to quiet critics. By May 2015, over 65 advocacy groups in 31 countries expressed concern about the program in a letter addressed to Mark Zuckerberg andposted to Facebook. “It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services,” the advocates said. These groups ranged from the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan to i freedom Uganda.
Then, in July, India’s Department of Telecom issued a report opposing the Internet.org app. “Content and application providers cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers and use network operations to extract value, even if it is for an ostensible public purpose,” the report said. Such activity, the report said, “should be actively discouraged.”
Facebook — listening to this feedback, it says — made some significant changes to the program. In May 2015, it said the Internet.org app would be open to any site or service that met specific criteria, including efficient data use and offering users a taste of the broader internet. In September 2015, Facebook renamed the Internet.org app, calling it Free Basics instead, bowing to critics who said the name was misleading.
Meanwhile, Facebook weirdly scrubbed its partners from the Internet.org website in mid-2015 as well, and changed the language of its tagline from “Internet.org, the global partnership” to “Internet.org by Facebook.”
“I didn’t know that it was gone off the site,” one launch partner told BuzzFeed News, referring to his company’s name and logo. “They don’t warn us about anything, and that has been a major frustration. Facebook does what they want to do, and they’re not that interested in communicating.” The term “partnership,” the person said, is a stretch for Internet.org.
Facebook now appears to be fighting for Free Basics’ life in India, a country it expects one-third of the next billion internet users to come from. The program is facing a permanent ban at the hands of the regulator TRAI, which has already suspended it during a study period and which over the past week has publicly lambasted Facebook for its heavy-handed lobbying.
TRAI first zeroed in on Free Basics on Dec. 9, 2015, when it released another consultation paper, this one with very different tone from its March version. The paper asked for feedback on “Differential Pricing for Data Services,” with zero-rating offerings squarely among them.
The TRAI paper’s introduction sparked a massive, public spat between Facebook and its opponents in India, both believing that this was the battle to determine Free Basics’ fate.
Facebook went to great lengths to state its case. It deployed its Notifications tab, for instance, in an attempt to get users to send automated messages asking TRAI to save Free Basics. The company also ran a massive advertising campaign, which reportedly cost millions of dollars, largely employing the same altruistic tone found throughout its history. Some 1.9 million people wrote to TRAI in support of the program.
Opponents of Internet.org also came out in force. Pahwa’s Savetheinternet.in, for instance, offered pre-populated answers to TRAI’s questions. The comedy group All India Bakchod made a widely viewed YouTube video urging viewers to write TRAI in opposition to Free Basics (again, the renamed Internet.org app). And nearly half a million people wrote to TRAI in opposition to the program.
By the end of December, TRAI asked Reliance Communications, Facebook’s only Free Basics partner in India, to put Free Basics on hold while it sorted out its view on whether the program conforms to India’s net neutrality principles.
On New Year’s Day, the regulator sent the first of a series of emails to Facebook criticizing its approach to lobbying for the preservation of Free Basics. The boilerplate responses sent by Facebook supporters, TRAI wrote, did not address the questions posed in its paper. TRAI requested they try again, and Facebook, in a response, said it passed along TRAI’s message to its users. But the next day, TRAI responded with yet another letter, telling Facebook: “Not even a single revised response has come from any such user till now.”
This week, the exchange between the two parties escalated to the point where TRAI’s disdain for Facebook was palpable. “Your urging has the flavor of reducing this meaningful consultative exercise designed to produce informed decisions in a transparent manner into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll,” the regulator wrote. “Neither the spirit nor the letter of a consultative process warrants such an interpretation which, if accepted, has dangerous ramifications for policy-making in India.”
Facebook, it appears, pissed off the most critical institution for its Free Basics program in India’s future, at the most critical time.
As Facebook waits to see the results of TRAI’s review, what’s clear is that the company approached this initiative without fully understanding what it was getting itself into. Even Zuckerberg himself admitted being surprised by the backlash. And now the company will likely deal with the repercussions for some time to come.
“This is a really really difficult problem to solve,” said Chris Riley, head of public policy at Mozilla, which has tried its own zero-rated approach. “There are alliances and coalitions and foundations and governments throwing hundreds of millions of dollars to make progress on the active problem of connecting the unconnected. Taking that seriously and offering something as one possible solution that we can talk about, that we can discuss, that we can explore would have been a much better approach.”
“Clearly they did not prepare for the level of negative feedback that they have gotten,” he said. “Clearly.”