Meta Connectivity (previously Facebook Connectivity) is facing scrutiny after reports emerged that their Free Basics program, which provides consumers in developing countries with free access to particular sites including Facebook, has been charging its users without their knowledge.
Free Basics launched in 2013 in collaboration with a variety of different cellular providers to better connect low-income individuals in developing countries with the online world. The program is used by an estimated 300 million people across many countries, including Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Although priding itself on being a free service, The Wall Street Journal reported this week that it received internal company documents showing that Free Basics charged its users’ millions of dollars every month. Pakistan users alone were charged $1.9 million in total.
Facebook said the incident was a ‘leakage’ — meaning that paid services were leaking into apps that were intended to be free of charge. The internal documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal further defined the leakage: “When users are in Free Mode and believe that the data they are using is being covered by their carrier networks, even though these users are actually paying for the data themselves.” A majority of the customers using the Free Basics service have prepaid cell phone plans that can be as cheap as a few dollars a month. Due to the nature of the plan, users’ were unaware that they were being charged by cellular providers until their funds were completely depleted after the unintended data use.
The data usage that turns the free service into the costly service that it is now seems to stem from videos. Although Free Basics does not include access to videos, many filtered in — so many that videos alone accounted for 83% of the avoidable charges. Not only did the software glitch increase data usage, but Facebook failed to provide any secondary form of protection that would notify an individual of the video charges, as they are not included in the free service, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Meta did not respond to a request from The Record for comment. A spokesperson for the company told The Verge: “The issue identified in the internal report that affected some of those reminders has largely been addressed. We’ll continue to work with our partners to meet our obligations to these users and ensure accurate and transparent data charges.”
Additionally, The Wall Street Journal reported that “Free Mode” will no longer be displayed on users’ screens, rather “Text Only” will appear. Meta is also working to improve software glitches that failed to provide pop-up notifications for video fees after the media link is clicked on.
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