Facebook has launched a new Free Basics zero-rating app, Discover. The app is designed to give users access to compressed versions of webpages, in a stated effort to help sporadic mobile internet users by letting them access the internet when their data plan expires. All websites are accessible, unlike on Free Basics, where only websites that followed certain technical specifications would work; but the webpages will be text-only. The Next Web reported that right now, the app has a 10MB limit for users on participating Peruvian telcos. Free Basics has launched in 65 territories, according to Facebook; Discover is now only being tested in Peru, but Facebook plans on making it available in the Philippines, Iraq and Thailand in the coming weeks. Participation is open to any telco in markets where the app will be available, as has been the case for Free Basics in the past.
Discover works by routing all web traffic through a Facebook proxy via the domain freebasics.com. This essentially lets telcos exempt Discover traffic for users who no longer have data balance. Discover is available both as a web app and as an Android app, essentially allowing the service to run on many cheaper phones. On supported devices, Discover will use HTTPS encryption as far as possible, even for websites that don’t have HTTPS protection. Facebook temporarily decrypts data that goes through its proxy server to remove images and video before webpages load for users. For HTTPS webpages, when the pages are sent from Facebook server to the developers, Facebook ads a second certificate to encrypt the data.
Facebook has sought civil society advice and support for Discover, and has received an endorsement from the World Wide Web Foundation. This is likely designed to prevent a repeat of the blowback Facebook has been at the receiving end of in the past for Free Basics. The company said it won’t store users’ browsing history “in connection with them” and that online behaviour will not be used to target ads or suggest friends.
Even in this new avatar, Facebook’s product violates Net Neutrality — video is not supported on the platform. The company said, however, that the product is only intended to keep people connected for the brief duration between recharges when they don’t have internet access.
Free Basics was forced to leave India when the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India banned discriminatory data tariffs in 2016. Now, the company’s connectivity efforts in India are much more low-key and compliant with Net Neutrality — it has launched Express Wi-Fi, hotspots in 41 cities and towns in North and West India, in partnership with ISPs such as Tikona, i2e1, Netvision, and LMES. In Asia, Express Wi-Fi is only available in India and Nepal.