April 25, 2018

When The Choice Is To Delete Facebook Or Buy A Loaf Of Bread

By Julieanne Romanosky and Marshini Chetty

In the last week, there has been a growing debate around Facebook and privacy. On Twitter, the newly formed #deletefacebook movement calls for users who are upset over the data breach of over 50 million Facebook accounts by Cambridge Analytica to rid themselves of the platform altogether. But like others have stated, deleting Facebook may not be the easy option for everyone on the platform because in some countries, Facebook is the Internet. In fact, in 63 countries around the world, Facebook has introduced the Free Basics platform which includes Facebook and offers marginalized users limited “free” browsing on the Internet. More importantly, our recent study, jointly conducted with the University of Maryland [5], suggests that deleting Facebook and Free Basics for low income users could be the difference between saving enough money to afford a loaf of bread or not.

What is Facebook’s Free Basics and why is it being used by low income users?: Free Basics was founded in 2013 by Facebook with the goal of connecting rural and low-income populations to the Internet for the first time. While Free Basics appears as a single app, it is actually a platform for hosting a variety of data-charge free or “zero-rated” applications and the available content changes depending on the country and unpaid partnerships with local service providers, i.e., no two Free Basics offerings are the same. However, all versions provide access to a lite version of Facebook (with no images or video) and select other third party apps such as Bing and Wikipedia. Educational materials, news, weather reports dominate the application topics in Free Basics across countries. Other apps cover health care, job listings, search engines, and classifieds. Here is what the app interface looks like in South Africa:

Free Basics in South Africa

What did we do to investigate Facebook and Free Basics usage?: We interviewed 35 Free Basics users in South Africa, one of the countries that the platform is offered in. We spoke to a combination of current low-income users and non-regular student users. Including both groups in our study allowed us to form a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of zero-rated services, the factors that affect the adoption of these services, and the possible use of these services in more developed countries than if we studied users or non-users alone or those who were unconnected and low-income only. Both groups were asked to talk about their online habits (i.e. time spent online, what websites or apps they used etc), how much money they typically spent on Internet access, and how, if at all, they worked to keep their mobile Internet costs down.

How do low income users use Facebook’s Free Basics?: We found, particularly, the low income users on Free Basics were able to cut their mobile data costs significantly, with one participant in our study exclaiming that they could now afford a loaf of bread with the money saved from being online for “free”. The service also drove users to the “free” apps included in the platform even when they preferred other apps that were not “free” to use. Interestingly, all the participants who used Free Basics regularly were not “unconnected” users who had never been online prior to using the platform. Instead, these participants had been using the Internet as paying customers but they had heard about the platform from others (often through word of mouth) as a way to save on Internet costs. For these users, deleting Facebook and its relevant resources would be like deleting a lifeline in an already expensive data landscape. The platform was not without limitations for our participants however. Since our participants were already online, they were also very conscious of the fact that the apps included in the platform were, in their perception, “second-rate” – for instance, the Facebook app on the platform does not include images or video unless users pay for them.

What does this mean for Free Basics users deleting Facebook? For now, many of the users like the participants in our study will not be able to easily #deletefacebook because saying goodbye to Facebook means incurring more data costs. And of course, privacy issues are very prominent on the platform – there has been a lot of controversy around the fact that all browsing done through the platform goes through a Facebook proxy and Facebook can decrypt the content of any app on its servers [1, 2, 3, 4]. Currently, we are trying to understand how much low income users understand or care about these privacy issues. Most importantly, we have to ask questions about how to help users manage their privacy settings and whether the new centralized settings proposed by Facebook will work similarly for users of platforms like Free Basics more generally. Finally, we have to ask are platforms like Free Basics the right way to provide Internet access to low income users in the first place or are there other techniques that allow Internet use in a less restrictive more privacy preserving manner. You can read more about our study and its limitations, (such as the small scale of the sample), here or skim the paper summary. The work will be presented at the upcoming top Human-computer interaction conference, CHI 2018, in Montreal next month.

References:

1. BJ Ard. 2015. Beyond Neutrality: How Zero Rating Can (Sometimes) Advance User Choice, Innovation, and
Democratic Participation. Maryland Law Review 4, 3(2015), 984–1028.
2. Luca Belli. 2016. Net neutrality reloaded: zero rating, specialised service, ad blocking and traffic management.
(2016).
3. Nanjira Sambuli. 2016. Challenges and opportunities for advancing Internet access in developing countries while
upholding net neutrality. Journal of Cyber Policy 1, 1 (2016), 61–74.
4. Rijurekha Sen, Hasnain Ali Pirzada, Amreesh Phokeer, Zaid Ahmed Farooq, Satadal Sengupta, David Choffnes,
and Krishna P. Gummadi. 2016. On the Free Bridge Across the Digital Divide: Assessing the Quality of Facebook’s Free Basics Service. In Proceedings of the 2016 Internet Measurement Conference (IMC ’16). ACM,
New York, NY, USA, 127–133
5. Romanosky, J. and Chetty, M. (2018) Understanding the Use and Impact of the Zero-Rated Free Basics Platform in South Africa. (2018) To be Presented at Human Factors in Computing Conference (CHI 2018).

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