Discover is Facebook’s new effort to help people access websites for free — but with limits


Facebook has a new connectivity app called Discover to help those who can’t afford to get online access information on the web.

The service, available through mobile web and Android app, allows users to visit any website in text format (no video, images, audio and other elements that eat up large amounts of data) and consume a few megabytes of internet data.

For Discover, which is part of the company’s Free Basics initiative, Facebook is working with mobile operators in Bitel, Claro, Entel, and Movistar. Discover is currently available in Peru, where it is in the initial testing phase.

In Peru, Discover is offering 10MB of free data to users each day. A Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch that the partner mobile operator determines the daily data allowance, and it anticipates operators in other countries where Discover would be tested to offer up to 20MB each day.

But nothing is set in stone. “We’ll be assessing how people are using Discover and the amount of daily data more during the trials and may work with our operator partners on adjustments going forward,” the spokesperson said, adding that mobile operators will also determine whether support for photos could be added to Discover.

Eliminating support for videos and images means that Discover users would be able to load dozens of websites in a day without running out of their data allowance.

Discover is the latest of a handful of internet connectivity efforts that Facebook has rolled out in recent years. The company maintains Internet.org, which offers unfettered access to dozens of websites in dozens of markets; and Express WiFi, which allows neighbourhood stores to sell small sachet of internet plans to users, in India. Facebook has partnered with more than 10,000 merchants and stores in the country to sell these data plans.

On the Internet .org website, the company also lists Connectivity Lab, another effort that is part of Free Basics initiative through which it is “exploring a variety of technologies, including high-altitude long-endurance planes, satellites and lasers” to bring more people online. At least one of those tests has been discontinued.

“During the coronavirus public health crisis, we believe it is particularly important to explore ways to help people stay connected and to increase access to health information and other resources on the internet. As part of our ongoing work to connect people to accurate health information, coronavirus health resources will be highlighted on the Discover homepage,” said Yoav Zeevi, a product manager at Facebook.

Facebook’s Free Basics initiative, which has helped tens of millions of people access internet, has also received scrutiny for its approach and some unintended consequences. Internet.org was banned in India after the local authority in the world’s second largest internet market found that the program violated net neutrality principles.

Zeevi said the company has heard the feedback and responded by allowing people to browse all websites. “Our work on Discover has been informed by our broader efforts — including our participation in the Contract for the Web — to expand connectivity and access to the open web while continuing to protect privacy,” he said. Tim Berners-Lee’s Contract for the Web has welcomed the launch of Discover.

Critics have argued that programs such as Internet.org, which has been discontinued in some additional markets, have also fuelled violence in real life.

As Facebook expands its connectivity efforts, some other companies have scaled down their initiatives. Earlier this year, Google discontinued its free Wi-Fi program called Station that offered internet access in more than 400 railway stations in India, and was available at public places in handful of other markets.

In 2018, Wikimedia shut down Wikipedia Zero, a program that allowed more than 800 million people to access the online encyclopaedia in 72 countries for free.



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