Saturday, June 24, 2017
The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Facebook Free Basics lands in Myanmar

State-owned telecoms operator Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) has started offering Facebook’s Free Basics, a service meant to connect the global unconnected with rudimentary internet access, and which has stirred controversy in neighbouring India.

Starting today, all users on MPT’s “Swe Thahar” plan will be able to surf Free Basics and use a second service, Facebook Flex, at no cost for data, a press release said.

The first service allows people to connect for free to a suite of mobile sites related to things like health, education and jobs. The second lets users switch between data mode and free mode – where users can post, comment, “like” and chat but cannot see pictures or videos, according to MPT.

While free internet may appeal to many, Facebook’s drive to evangelise Free Basics has met with mixed reactions, notably in India.

The social media behemoth’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an editorial for The Times of India that critics had falsely claimed the service did not respect net neutrality and could push the internet toward becoming a “walled garden” – a place where access to information is dictated and can be restricted.

Mr Zuckerberg seemed mystified by opposition, writing, “Who could possibly be against this?”

But as in India – where the service is no longer offered – there are concerns in Myanmar over the program’s launch. Ma Htaike Htaike Aung of Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation said there are upsides and downsides.

“Facebook’s Free Basics is not an ideal solution to promote accessibility and affordability, and we cannot pretend it is free internet as it is not giving all of the internet ‘free’,” she wrote in an email yesterday. “It’s much more like a walled garden.”

She noted the transparency of the deal is important, as is ensuring the partnership does not preclude other telcos from launching Free Basics.

Originally Facebook decided which services were included in Free Basics. Following criticism, any services can now be added if they meet certain criteria, she added. “We have to make sure that’s the version given to Myanmar.”

Meanwhile, Facebook’s link-up with MPT could also mean competition will be negatively impacted, she said.

Facebook is a force to be reckoned with in Myanmar. It has been used by turns as an election pulpit, fundraising platform and even an outlet for hate speech.

Last year Facebook’s user base in the country was estimated at 6 million people, as previously reported by The Myanmar Times.

There are now 9.5 million monthly active Facebook users in Myanmar, according to Amara Digital Marketing Agency head of operations Ma Chan Myae Khine.

The last few years have been explosive for Myanmar’s telecommunications sector. The number of SIM cards now present in the market – around 47 million, according to industry data – comes close to matching the country’s population.

While real market penetration is much lower, estimated earlier this year at 45 percent, more people than ever have access to the internet.

But Facebook says it want to push connectivity even further.

“We hope to bring more people in Myanmar online by reducing the affordability and awareness barrier,” said Facebook’s director of global operator partnerships Markku Makelainen in a statement.

Ma Htaike Htaike Aung said it would be good if Facebook could bring Free Basics users in Myanmar onto the “normal internet” as the company claimed happened with one-half of users in India.

She also said it may not be wise to follow in India’s footsteps.

“While promoting internet freedom, we are also aware of the country’s context and its unique situation – so it might not be a smart move for us to ask Myanmar’s regulator for the complete ban of the service like what happened in India,” she wrote.

“We’ll have to see the impact of it, and also get the discussion going on – and be ready to act.”