Egypt blocked Facebook’s Free Basics over surveillance requests
Facebook was forced to abandon its Free Basics program in Egypt after refusing to facilitate government surveillance, according to a report by Reuters. The news agency refers to two unnamed sources who are supposedly familiar with the matter, each confirming the disagreement and its relation to the shutdown last December. Free Basics had only been available for two months, through an agreement with the domestic carrier Etisalat. The service is part of Facebook’s internet.org, an initiative which provides free access to some “basic” applications including Facebook.
Reuters’ report is light on detail. It doesn’t mention when the talks took place or what type of access the government was requesting. What is clear, however, is that Facebook refused to comply with the demands. Facebook and Etisalat are yet to comment on the matter. Mohamed Hanafi, a spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Communication, gave Reuters a different explanation, however. He said it was a regulator’s decision:
“The service was offered free of charge to the consumer, and the national telecommunication regulator saw the service as harmful to companies and their competitors.”
Since the closure, Facebook’s internet.org has been forced to pull out of India too. That decision, however, was due to wider criticisms about Free Basics and its effect on net neutrality. By supplying free access to a select group of services, the argument goes that Facebook was discouraging alternative sites and apps. As a result, not all data was being treated equally — an action that breaks the spirit of net neutrality. India and Egypt are massive markets, but it doesn’t spell the end of Free Basics just yet. The service is still live in 37 countries, including Thailand and Mexico.