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Facebook’s plan to offer free internet in developing countries ended up costing users, WSJ reports

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The issue stems from an issue with Facebook’s software

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Facebook partners with mobile carriers in developing countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Pakistan to give users free access to Facebook and a few other websites, but users have been unknowingly getting charged by their cellular providers, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

Its Free Basics service is offered through Meta Connectivity (formerly Facebook Connectivity) and is supposed to provide users with “access to communication tools, health information, education resources and other low-bandwidth services” at no charge. The program has been around since 2013, and as of last October, it serves more than 300 million people.

Meanwhile, its other service, Discover, provides limited free data every day. According to Meta Spokesperson Drew Pusateri, the connections mentioned in the report are referred to as Text-Only Facebook, which “allows people to access a low-bandwidth version of Facebook in which you can use some of the functionality like post text, like, comment and see all text on Facebook but generally can’t watch videos and view photos.”

In an internal report viewed by the WSJ, Facebook reportedly knew users were getting charged for internet usage for months and calls the issue “leakage,” as it occurs when paid services start overlapping with what’s free. And since most of the users the program serves are on prepaid phone plans, many of them don’t realize they’ve been getting charged for using mobile data until they run out of funds. The WSJ notes that users in Pakistan have been charged the most for using Facebook’s “free” service at a total of $1.9 million (a number that’s been adjusted for purchasing power parity), with around two dozen additional nations also affected.

The issue appears to stem from Facebook’s software and user interface (UI), with videos at the root of the problem. Videos aren’t supposed to appear on the Text-Only version of Facebook, but glitches in Facebook’s software let some slip through the cracks. Notifications that are supposed to inform the user that they’ll be charged for watching videos also fail to appear. According to the documents viewed by the WSJ, Facebook found that about 83 percent of unnecessary charges come from these videos, which really aren’t supposed to appear in the first place.

Facebook says it has since fixed the problem — for the most part. “We tell people that viewing photos and videos will result in data charges when they sign up, and we do our best to remind people that viewing them may result in data charges,” Pusateri tells The Verge. “The issue identified in the internal report that affected some of those reminders has largely been addressed. We’ll continue to work with our partners to meet our obligations to these users and ensure accurate and transparent data charges.”

As pointed out by the WSJ, Facebook’s growth has largely come to a stop in developed markets and is only rising in low-connectivity countries. Facebook has been acting not only as a social site in these countries but also as a sort of internet provider through its partnership with carriers. It’s even deployed its own Wi-Fi throughout these countries. India banned Facebook’s Free Basics service in 2016, citing that it violates the values of net neutrality.

Correction January 26th 5:25PM ET: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated the program referenced in the WSJ report was Free Basics when it’s actually the “Text-Only” version of Facebook. We regret the error.

Update January 26th 5:25PM ET: Updated to clarify the $1.9 million figure has been adjusted for purchasing power parity, and that Facebook deploys its internet services in partnership with carriers.