Meta’s ‘free’ internet is costing people money in developing countries

Software glitches in Meta’s free internet service are leading to unwanted charges for users, according to documents obtained by whistleblower Francis Haugen and shared with The Wall Street Journal. Paid features, like videos, have been appearing in the service’s free mode, even though clips are either supposed to stay hidden or warn users of data charges. When users tap the content, they face carrier bills that can be especially difficult to pay for the service’s target audience of users in developing countries.

The slip-up appears to have been lucrative for carriers. Meta estimated carriers were charging free users about $7.8 million per month as of last summer. The issue was particularly serious in Pakistan, where users have reportedly been charged a total $1.9 million per month.

A Meta spokesperson said it had received reports about the problem and had “continued work” on fixing the software flaws. New versions of the free mode explicitly label it as “text only” rather than implying it will never cost any money. The representative said the document estimating $7.8 million per month in charges wasn’t based on carrier billing information, and that the overcharges were closer to $3 million per month.

Meta, like Google, has a strong interest in pushing free internet access. Most of its recent growth comes from developing countries where many people are hopping online for the first time. While the free service doesn’t limit users to only visiting Facebook and other services it owns, it increases the chances internet newcomers will sign up and spur Meta’s growth.

There are other concerns about Meta’s free offerings beyond surprise billing. The company has been criticized for making it too easy to pay for data through in-app systems (instead of direct purchases from carriers) and after-the-fact “loans” in some countries. It has also been accused of pushing users of its Discover product towards content on its own services, while not doing enough to make external content easily accessible. While the company has claimed it will treat all internet traffic —whether to its own products or elsewhere — equally, the leaked document itself states that Discover “is not functioning consistent with our commitments.” 

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