Facebook is taking another stab at connecting the world using the mobile web and an Android app called Discover.
Discover allows folks to browse the internet using a daily balance of free data from participating operators. Unlike its ill-fated Free Basics initiative, which was criticized for running afoul of net neutrality rules, Discover supports only low-bandwidth traffic (don’t expect to access video, audio, and other data-intensive content), and promises that “all websites are treated equally.”
“Many internet users around the world remain under-connected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance,” according to a company announcement. “Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again. We’ll also be assessing how Discover can help people extend use of their regular data balance and support internet adoption.”
This is especially important during a global pandemic, when citizens can benefit from access to health information and other resources. As such, Facebook will include COVID-19 resources in the trial, highlighting them on the Discover homepage.
Mark Zuckerberg in 2013 announced plans to connect “the next 5 billion people”—a dream that developed into Free Basics (then called Internet.org). The program, which launched in India in 2015, provided people with cheap smartphones and access to specific services that didn’t eat into monthly data usage. Officials, however, complained that Facebook was favoring its partners, rather than providing access to the entire web and letting users pick and choose apps. Facebook eventually pulled the service amidst backlash.
Egypt later turned off Free Basics because the government couldn’t spy on citizens’ browsing activities; the app also raised privacy concerns in Angola, where folks found a way to share copyrighted content by uploading it to Wikimedia via Free Basics’ network connection. In autumn 2016, Facebook reportedly entered talks to bring its connectivity campaign to North America.
Based on feedback from its first go-round, Facebook developed Discover to allow the browsing of all websites using a daily balance of free data. Folks can choose to view higher-bandwidth content via data purchased from their mobile operator. The platform does not require a Facebook account, and won’t store or use browsing activity for other purposes. “We have also maintained strong privacy protections and provided transparency in the product about how these protections work,” the social network added. “As we test Discover, the existing model of Free Basics continues to help connect people around the world.”
Following this week’s launch in Peru, additional Discover trials are expected to rollout to countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Iraq soon.