Free Basics Investigation

Free Basics by Facebook

So while all of us were busy turning the consultation paper on differential pricing of data services put out by TRAI into a battle ground for Net Neutrality in India, on the sidelines, we decided to checkout Free Basics in action. So we got hold of a Reliance SIM card and a dying smart phone to take the free* ride.

Dear TRAI, Free Basics is Still Around

Reliance is defying TRAI's order to shut down Free Basics

We started off with the possible vanity of the attempt since TRAI had already asked Reliance Communications to put the Free Basics program on hold, and Reliance said it has complied. However, we were greeted with the welcome message and then the confirmation button to accept Facebook's terms, Data policy, cookies policy and privacy policy.

Welcome to Free Basics

Turns out, Reliance chose to carry on providing Free Basics on its network, openly violating the regulator's order to temporarily shut down the service. Neither is Reliance or Facebook informing its users about the order.

Websites on Free Basics

There are about 135 websites registered with Free Basics. A curated, most likely hand-picked list of 45 services is provided as soon as the app opens, and the rest of them are hidden under 'More Services'.

Primarily, these are information oriented websites like news, encyclopedia, guides and tips. Further, there are services like classifieds, blood donation etc.

To see the full list of services available on Free Basics, browse through the below gallery of screenshots.

For First-time Internet Users

There is one site that introduces users about the basics of Internet on a site that isn't particularly branded. Based on traffic analysis, we determined that the site is served from an IP on Reliance's network. There is a disclaimer in the footer denying responsibility for the accuracy of information on the site.

Wikipedia on Free Basics

The only website in Free Basics currently that allows users to become content creators is Wikipedia, except sending comments on news articles. Although we weren't able to get the comment submission form load up on TOI's articles.

The Wikipedia editing experience seems to be the same as editing it over a regular 3G network. Interestingly, Free Basics doesn't use Wikipedia Zero, the project from Wikimedia Foundation to provide free-of-cost access to Wikipedia. WMF has taken a stand on Net Neutrality different from that of its usual friends and allies in support of this project and its aims. Free Basics seems to be using the regular method of accessing Wikipedia based on (a) the URLs being requested and (b) the absence of the usual banner on top of Wiki articles which notify its users about free data usage.

Music and Video

There are no video sites like Youtube available through Free Basics. We were however able to use a music streaming service from Hungama.com which had exactly 4 songs available for free. Unlike the dynamic nature of their service on the 'full' website, the list on the free basic version seems to be a static one, which has the same 4 songs available for a few days that we have been observing.Any of the other links that offer more music, pop up a message notifying the user about going out of Free Basics and applicable charges for further usage.

This is an example of how Free Basics users could be subjected to inferior quality services. The warning about data charges being applicable for accessing anything beyond the meagerly available content, makes the user give a second thought before proceeding.

Free Basics Hungama MusicFree Basics Hungama Exit

Personal Blogs

Some of the sites listed in Free Basics appear to be personal blogs of individuals. Here's a direct link to one such blog which appear as is on Free Basics.

Technical Details

The Proxy Server

We tried to understand how Free Basics handles the proxy setup to relay connections from partnering websites to the users.This is the proxy server which acts as the gateway to the Facebook's version of 'free and basic' Internet. This server

After clicking on the service from the list, the app sends a request to the proxy server over HTTP with the target website's URL and the further communication happens over SSL which we haven't been able to inspect so far. Watch out for more updates about this.

Free Basics Proxy Requests

Here's an example of how the proxy request is structured. These requests are sent to the proxy for every single resource required on a web page, like images, CSS styles, Javascript code etc.

Free Basics Proxy Requests

 

Data Usage

We used Free Basics for almost an hour exploring the content on its partner websites. We also streamed all the 4 'basic bollywood' songs from Hungama's website to account for some significant data usage. We checked the available data balance before and after the one hour period. The balance report from Reliance confirms that the data usage through Free Basics has been zero rated by Reliance. The data usage accounted by the phone towards Free Basics app was about 40MB during that period, while Reliance reported only a consumption of about 1MB (used by other apps on the phone during that period).

Data Usage Report from Reliance

Data Usage Report on Phone

Lifetime "Free" Facebook

Of course, when we were away, there were these promotional text messages once in a while from Reliance, informing us about zero-rated Facebook for lifetime.

Welcome to Free Basics

Watch out for more updates on this post, as we continue to find out more about Free Basics. Tweet to us @SFLC.in about what else you want to know.