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

Deepak Gupta
Deepak Gupta January 26, 2022
Updated 2022/01/26 at 1:03 AM

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 Wall Street Journal. Paid features such as videos have appeared in the free mode of the service, although clips must be hidden or warn users of data charges. When users touch content, they face operator bills that can be especially difficult to pay for the service’s target audience of users in developing countries.

The slide appears to have been profitable for operators. Operators estimated by Meta were charging free users about $7.8 million a month last summer. The problem was particularly serious in Pakistan, where users were reportedly charged a total of $1.9 million a month.

A spokesperson for Meta said it had received reports of the issue and “continued work” to fix the software glitches. Newer versions of the free mode explicitly label it as “text only” instead of implying that it will never cost money. The representative said the document estimating $7.8 million per month in charges was not based on carrier billing information and that the additional charges were close to $3 million per month.

Meta, like Google, has a strong interest in promoting free internet access. Most of its recent growth comes from developing countries, where many people are accessing the internet for the first time. While the free service doesn’t limit users to just visiting Facebook and other services it owns, it does increase the chances of Internet newcomers signing up and spurring Meta’s growth.

There are other concerns about Meta’s free offers besides surprise billing. The company has been criticized for making it too easy to pay for data through in-app systems (rather than direct carrier purchases) and “loans” after the fact in some countries. has also been accused of pushing users of your Discover product to content on your own services, without doing enough to make external content easily accessible. While the company claims it will handle all internet traffic – whether for its own products or elsewhere – equally, the leaked document itself states that Discover is “not working up to our commitments.”

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