Photo: Facebook
Photo: Facebook

With Free Basics, Facebook hopes to build on Internet.org

While the Net neutrality debate rages on, Free Basics adds more service providers and revamps the entire package

Internet.org, the controversial Facebook venture, has just got a facelift. Its smartphone application and website are now known as Free Basics. It has also added 60 new services, such as English Dost (for learning English), MeraDoctor (for health), M-Kisan (for farmers) and Skymet (for weather forecasts).

The total number of content providers now is 80.

Launched in February, Internet.org started out as a service meant to connect those who do not have Internet connections, to the social media network, as well as websites such as Wikipedia, ESPN, BBC, Reuters, ClearTrip, AccuWeather and Dictionary.com. The rebranding comes at a time when there is global debate on the issue of Net neutrality, and whether such platforms (as well as Airtel’s Zero in India) go against that idea.

Critics of Internet.org say that the social media network is conspiring with telecom operators and trying to control Internet traffic by favouring a few services. The department of telecom (DoT) pulled up Facebook’s Internet.org in July for violating the principles of Net neutrality and favouring its own services over others.

In an official statement, Facebook said: “We’re making this change to better distinguish the Internet.org initiative from the programs and services we’re providing, including Free Basics." So the Free Basics app and Freebasics.com are basically service providers under the Internet.org initiative.

The rebranding and addition of new sites is indicative of Facebook’s determination to continue with the platform. The service is positioned a bit differently from Airtel Zero and that reflects in the emphasis on making the content compatible for low bandwidth and low-cost devices, which may find it difficult to run all these apps separately.

Internet.org, essentially designed for countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, will be available in 19 countries at present. Android users can download it for free from the Google Play Store. In India, Facebook has a tie-up with Reliance Communications Ltd. Simply put, users with a Reliance mobile connection can access all the services that form part of Free Basics without paying extra for data charges or rentals. Reliance Communications has a mobile subscriber base of 108 million.

The service interface has been modified to make navigation easier. Users can search for a service by name or description and add the service they want to use frequently to their list of free services. This adds an element of personalization and convenience.

Facebook claims the service has improved lives by providing free health, education, and finance-related information to people in poor and backward countries. The company also claims that services like BabyCenter and MAMA, which provide information on pregnancy and parenting, are popular with users.

Internet.org has strict technical guidelines for developers and content providers. Every service that is part of Free Basics has to provide content in a particular format. It should not be data-intensive, and should not use high-definition images and videos which require higher bandwidth. Facebook’s use of certain security protocols on the Web version of Internet.org had led to some concerns; with Free Basics, a part of that issue has been addressed by allowing the use of Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) on websites, something that wasn’t available on the Web version earlier.

The company hopes this new set of services and features will boost its user base. It will be interesting to see if the social media network signs up any new mobile service providers, particularly in India, to get the service out to more people.

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