Facebook to explore putting ads on Free Basics in the future

fbFacebook, the world’s largest social media company, said it will explore the option of putting advertising in its ‘free Internet’ platform – Free Basics.

Participating in a discussion on Reddit, Facebook’s Vice President in charge of Internet.org, Chris Daniels said it’s a possibility the company will look at in the future.

Facebook had come under intense criticism for trying to pass of Internet.org (now Free Basics) as a charitable enterprise. The clarification that the company would look at putting ads on the platform has come three months after Internet.org was renamed ‘Free Basics’. Dot.org domains are reserved for non-profit enterprises.

“Many people are recommending models to provide more of the internet for free in an ad funded way. While we haven’t found any business model where ad revenue could pay for people’s access to the internet.., if there is a way that we can do so, then we want to be able to explore that in the future,” Daniels said.

Facebook does not allow any of the nearly 100 websites it has approved to be part of ‘free Internet’ to display any sort of advertising.

Under the ‘Free Basics’ program, Facebook’s telecom operator partner has to offer free bandwidth to its customers if they are using the ‘Free Basics’ application for browsing the 100 or so websites approved for use by Facebook. The ‘approved’ websites do not include Google, Gmail, Twitter and many of the most popular ones.

At the same time, Daniels said Facebook is not making any money from the enterprise (at present.)

“We are doing this because our mission is to make the world more open and connected,” Daniels said. “If we wanted to make more money, we’d invest in more ad technology in lucrative advertising markets. We’re not making money on this…”

The Vice President also said that the program does not seem to be creating a big burden on its telecom partner as very people ‘hang around’ on the platform for long. Instead, it is turning out to be a great way to persuade people to buy the telecom operators’ paid offerings.

“When we launched the program, we didn’t know if Free Basics was going to be a “thin layer” where people come onto Free Basics and quickly move onto the whole internet, or a “thick layer” where people hang out on the free services for a long time before moving on,” he said.

Less than 10% of the people who use Free Basics continue to use it as their exclusive method of connecting to websites after one month, he added.

“What the data has shown is that its a really, really thin layer. People move on very quickly to the entire internet and Free Basics has shown to be a really good introduction for people who may not understand why the internet is valuable or may not be willing to pay to try it…

“Within a month, 50% of people who started their journey with Free Basics are paying for the entire internet and have the ability to every service. Only single digit percentages of people are only on Free Basics after that month, and that number shrinks over time.”

Daniels also said that nowhere else in the world has the company faced the sort of criticism that it has faced in India.

“India has been the outlier and more challenging. Other countries have embraced Free Basics with open arms,” he said, leading to some users pointing to India’s experience with the British East India Company which came to trade, but ended up ruling the country.

Daniels, however, did not answer the key question of why Facebook needs to have the final say on which website a user will browse on the platform or not.

While Facebook says that its Internet.org team is swamped by a ‘large volume of requests’ from websites for inclusion in the platform, its current ‘approved list’ of websites does not include basic ones like Google, the most used web url in India, and Gmail, the most popular email system in India. Twitter, second only to Facebook in the social media sphere, is also not approved for use under the platform.

“If FreeBasics is an open platform, (and as per your site, you claim “Due to the large volume of requests we are currently receiving, it may take 8 to 10 weeks to receive a response from a member of the Internet.org team”) why have only 101 websites been allowed/signed up into FreeBasics in India so far,” asked user atnixxin in the reddit Q&A.

Many users wanted to know why Facebook was not giving users a fixed amount of data for browsing any website they wanted, instead of telling them that they could browse only one of the 100 or so websites approved by the company.

“There is a very simple question bouncing around,” noted user brijeshmasrani. “Why (does) Facebook want to provide Unlimited access to Limited app instead of Limited access to Unlimited app? We don’t want someone else to decide what we do on Internet.” The question was not directly addressed.

You can read the full Q&A here.
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