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In Africa, internet costs are out of reach for most, thus having the internet at a low cost or partially free to access basic vital information is important. Free Basics – a mobile app created by Facebook – has since its 2015 launch been hailed by the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as the “first step towards digital equality” due to its audacious plan to “introduce” millions of people to the internet, many of whom live in developing countries such as Kenya and Ghana.
Facebook claims to be bridging this gap by providing mobile phone users in developing countries with an app that gives them access to a few online services, among them Facebook. This is not the whole internet – it does not allow users to click links or load videos – but it is something.
If you have no other option, something is surely better than nothing. This tool may not give people the whole internet, but it could bring vital information to poor users. When it comes to public health information, for example, this could mean life or death for millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
But while Free Basics may be “free” in terms of money, it comes at another cost that Facebook is loathe to acknowledge, despite concerns raised by digital rights experts and activists. The app gives users access to only a tiny set of services, a clear violation of net neutrality. And it collects data about users and their activities on the app, without telling them how this data will be used.
Facebook claims to want to 'introduce' people to the internet. But instead, they've built a walled garden that fails to meet local needs, and seems much better designed to collect users' data than it is to educate, inspire or empower them.
This past spring, we joined four other researchers from the Global Voices citizen media community, based in Colombia, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines, in a three-month exercise, where we all used and reported on our experience with the app.
Despite Facebook’s marketing campaigns, which depict Free Basics as a bridge to the information age, we found a stark difference between what the service is lauded for (mostly by Facebook itself) and how it actually works.
The app shows a lack of understanding of local nuances and needs, bears significant shortcomings in its features, and collects ample data about its users.
Overall, it fails to give tangible value to the very people that it claims to serve – the poor and less educated in developing countries.
The value proposition of Free Basics is rooted in its ability to make useful content accessible at no cost to the underserved. However, the app fails to deliver on this crucial aspect of its promise.
In both Ghana and Kenya, despite being built for countries with robust technology sectors and online content markets, the app gave users little access to these markets. To look at Free Basics in either place, one might think that there was not much happening online in these countries. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In Kenya, out of the 16 services featured in the main menu of the app, only three are local. Two of these apps are job-search sites. The third comes from the Daily Nation, the country’s largest daily newspaper. All three local services are available only in English.
This is despite the fact that Kenya is one of the most connected countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It has the 14th-fastest mobile internet speed (pdf) in the world, putting it well ahead of the United States. The country is experiencing an explosion in social media use and with it, an abundance of local content. According to State of the Internet in Kenya 2016 report (pdf) conducted by Bloggers Association of Kenya, there are currently approximately 15,000 Kenyan blogs. In 2016, overall monthly visits to blogs by Kenyans increased by 46 percent from 12.4 million to 18.1 million.
Blogs such as Farmerstrend, Kuzabiashara, Healthkenya, and Mzalendo just to name a few, are sites with local news and useful information on farming, entrepreneurship, health, governance and women’s rights. No such blogs with local content are available on the app.
The Kenyan version of the app also did not offer access to government service websites such as eCitizen, which is used for everything from accessing one’s birth certificate to registering a business, or www.hudumakenya.go.ke, which enables Kenyans to access basic vital services such as issuance of birth certificates and national IDs, registration of self-help groups and welfare societies, among others.
The Ghanaian version of the app was no better. It offered no access to government or citizen service websites, and included only a few local services. About 70 percent of all services included in the app were based outside of Africa, bearing little local relevance.
And even with news sites that were included in the app, users were sometimes cut off from the complete version of a news story. Videos did not load, and photos were often removed from news articles. In some cases, the user does not get to see the whole story, but rather just a blurb of a sentence or two. Users who wish to access the full story are greeted with a pop-up notice telling them that they must pay full data charges in order to gain access.
Users who cannot afford these charges are thus left with incomplete information, potentially increasing the spread of false information and fake news.
In some versions that we tested, the different websites offered in the app were not organised on any logical basis. News, information, education, jobs and entertainment services were presented in alphabetical order and not organised by topic, making it quite a task for a user to scroll-search for a service. Some versions also lacked a search function.
This was a far cry from Facebook’s public relations messaging, which depicts the service as a very functional one for those who have never used the internet before.
Free Basics also fails to meet the linguistic needs of target users in the region. In Kenya, while the app interface can be used in Kiswahili, only three services are available in Kiswahili. Kiswahili is one of the official languages of Kenya and is spoken by a majority of the population, unlike English, which despite being an official language, is not as widely spoken.
In Ghana, the version of Free Basics offered via Tigo – one of six leading mobile service providers in Ghana – was available only in English and it did not offer users the ability to change the user interface to Hausa, Twi or other major local languages.
Facebook claims to want to “introduce” people to the internet. But instead, they’ve built a walled garden that fails to meet local needs, and seems much better designed to collect users’ data than it is to educate, inspire or empower them.
Indeed, Free Basics just might be the gift that keeps on receiving.
Njeri Wangari Wanjohi is a Kenyan writer and poet whose work lies at the intersection of the arts, technology, media and research.
Kofi Yeboah is a Ghanaian blogger and communications strategist.
Both are volunteer authors at Global Voices.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.