Facebook renames Internet.org to Free Basics

Social networking giant Facebook has renamed its controversial Internet.org app and launched it as Free Basics, a mobile app and website through which users can access certain services free of data charges. The company is also experimenting with Express Wi-Fi, a program to provide wi-fi in rural areas in India, top executives said.

Free Basics, targeted at countries like India, will now be one of the several initiatives under the Internet.org program which has a mission of connecting the unconnected population to the Internet. “We wanted to strike a differentiation between Internet.org and program with operator partnerships,” said Chris Daniels, VP of Internet.org.

The Free Basics app and mobile website went live in India with over 60 partnerships including services like English Dost, MeraDoctor and M-Kisan on Thursday. “We will have over 60 new developers and partners across 19 countries on Free Basics,” said Ime Archibong, Director- Product Partnerships at Facebook.

Until now, the program to provide free access to basic Internet by partnering with telecom companies, was called Internet.org. The move comes ahead of Indian Prime Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Facebook headquarters this week.

When Facebook had rolled out Internet.org in India with telecom operator Reliance, it had come under fire from various quarters. It was termed a “walled garden” because the company got to choose which developers got to be on the platform.

However, in May, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the platform will be opened up for all developers who can build their apps to the specifications put out by Facebook.

“The fears that have been spread by some of our critics are simply not true. Internet.org was not designed to be a destination but its a digital literacy tool where people learn about the Internet and go on to explore all of it,” said Daniels.

Any developer which meets the specifications listed can be on the platform, said Facebook.

The company said that operators have observed that people start accessing all of the Internet 50% faster if they were given Internet.org. “After just 30 days, over half of people have moved on to the larger internet and gone beyond the free basic access,” Daniels said.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion in India about free basic services. A lot of that discussion has been based on unfounded fears by our critics. They are afraid that it is going to be a destination and people will be confused that this is the whole Internet. The facts speak for themselves,” he said.

Internet.org will also include initiatives like the Facebook Connectivity Labs which is building solar powered drones and systems that use satellites or laser technologies to transmit data.

In India, the company has been piloting Express Wi-Fi, a program under which local entrepreneurs are incentivised to setup Wi-Fi hotspots in various regions and sell data packs to users in the area.

“We help them in terms of technical solutions, business model and marketing,” said Munish Seth, Country Manager Facebook Connectivity Solutions India. Facebook has already setup such hotspots in partnership with Internet Service Providers in parts of Uttarakhand and Bangalore.