Facebook is testing in Peru a new app called Discover that lets people browse text on any mobile website for free for a certain amount of time, a move that highlights the social media giant’s ambitions to expand internet access globally.
Facebook’s vision to connect the entire world has faced hurdles in countries such as India, where a controversial program called Free Basics was banned in 2016 because of concerns that it favored some internet services, including the massive social network, over others. The company has denied that the program threatened net neutrality — the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally — and opened the platform to developers so they can add more websites to the Free Basics app.
The trial of Discover shows how Facebook is responding to criticism of its connectivity efforts, which could also help the social network grow the number of users in developing countries. The main difference between Discover and Free Basics is that users can browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile operators. On Free Basics, which is available in more than 55 countries, users are limited to certain websites. Discover will replace Free Basics in Peru.
Facebook said the goal of Discover is to help people who don’t have consistent access to the internet. The novel coronavirus pandemic has shined a spotlight on the importance of bridging the digital divide because more people need reliable internet to work, attend school from home or connect with their friends and family. Getting reliable internet access can be especially challenging in rural areas and for low-income families.
“Many internet users around the world remain underconnected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance. Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again,” said Yoav Zeevi, a product manager for Facebook, in a blog post.
Facebook said that the amount of free data varies by mobile operator and that they will be able to provide a balance of free data to use in Discover each day, week or month. As a starting point for the Peru trial, each operator is offering 10MB of daily data. It’s unclear how much money users could save or how much extra time Peru’s more than 32 million residents could spend online as a result of this program. Facebook said that the company’s initial testing showed that on average people can likely load anywhere from around 10 to more than 40 websites with the amount of free data provided. The social media giant plans to expand the trial in the coming weeks to several other countries including Thailand, the Philippines and Iraq. The company expects operators in other trial countries will offer up to 20MB each day.
Any mobile operator in those countries, Facebook said, will be able to choose to offer Discover and the company doesn’t pay these operators to provide free data. The social network doesn’t have any plans to introduce Discover in India.
Facebook’s numerous privacy woes, including the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, could also make some people wary about trying out the new app. The company said that Discover won’t store people’s individual browsing history. Web browsing activity won’t be used by the social network to target ads or suggest new friends. You also don’t need a Facebook account to use Discover.
To access Discover, Peru residents can visit 0.discoverapp.com on any mobile web browser. They can also download the app in the Google Play Store if they have a SIM card from mobile operators Bitel, Claro, Entel or Movistar. Users will get notified when free data is available but they won’t be able to view videos, audio or any other type of content that involves using “data-intensive traffic.” They can still view videos if they pay for more data from the mobile provider, and Facebook will display a notice if that’s the case.
Discover displays a list of the most popular websites in the country based on traffic data compiled by a third party, according to Facebook. An image of the app includes Facebook, which has 2.6 billion monthly active users, but also includes the social network’s competitors such as Google’s YouTube and Twitter. There’s also sections for coronavirus information and business and finance within the app. Users can also browse Discover in Spanish and English in Peru.
Depending on how the trial goes, Discover could eventually replace Facebook’s Free Basics program or be offered as an alternative. Free Basics came out of a Facebook initiative called Internet.org that was launched in 2013 after CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a 10-page white paper outlining why he believes that connectivity is a “basic human right.” A connectivity lab part of Internet.org has been exploring ways to make internet access more affordable, including using drones and lasers.
Facebook’s connectivity efforts, though, have been criticized by advocacy groups such as Global Voices, which accused the company of engaging in “digital colonialism” by pushing users toward “western corporate content.” The group released a report in 2017 that identified a number of issues with the Free Basics program including not showing certain content in languages other than English. Global Voices also said the program gave Facebook another way to gather data on people in countries where it wants to expand its user base.
Zeevi said in the blog post that the company listened to feedback from stakeholders and civil society groups such as the World Wide Web Foundation before launching the trial of the Discover app. The foundation, which has received some funding from Facebook and other tech companies, said in a statement that efforts like Discover can help people stay online when they have a limited amount of data but are less successful in bringing more people online, meaning that they’ve used the internet in the last three months.
Facebook is working on a number of projects aimed at improving internet access globally, but numerous barriers still remain.
“Overcoming these challenges — including affordability, relevance, and lack of infrastructure — requires a multifaceted approach of different business solutions, partnerships, and long-term technology initiatives,” he said. “Discover is one piece of our much broader connectivity efforts.”