Study finds Facebook's free data app favored its own services

Discover provides users with free daily data and stripped-down web pages.

Willy Kurniawan / reuters

Last year, Facebook started a program called Discover, which builds on its Free Basics internet accessibility service. It offers users in some countries an allowance of free daily data to access any website through the mobile web and an Android app.

Discover simplifies web pages by running them through a proxy server. It removes video and audio streams, as well as some images. However, a new paper suggests Discover favored Facebook and Instagram.

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine and the University of the Philippines studied how the service rendered content from popular websites. The study was conducted last summer in the Philippines, a country with a high level of internet usage.

The researchers found that Discover rendered Facebook and Instagram with "their features nearly intact, while other sites become broken or difficult to use." Messaging didn't work on Instagram, but it did on Facebook. "On both Globe and Smart [networks used to test Discover], images on Facebook and Instagram appeared, while most or all images were redacted from every other site we encountered," the researchers wrote. "On a few sites, images appeared only for advertisements."

According to the paper, Facebook was deemed fully functional, as were Google, the Philippines Department of Education website, job portal Jobstreet and the World Health Organization's site. Instagram, YouTube and Yahoo (owned by Engadget's parent company Verizon) were among those listed as semi-functional. Netflix, Roblox and Twitter were found to be non-functional. It wasn't possible to create or log into accounts on some sites, partly because Discover often blocked images in CAPTCHA tests.

Facebook told Rest of World, which first reported on the study, that it didn't mean to favor its own services. It attributed that to a technical error which it said has been resolved. It's impossible to check that every site is rendered properly through Discover because of high volume, a spokesperson said.

“As this report identified, there was a proxy error in the Discover app that resulted in inconsistent image loading across many websites that load images involving HTTP redirection,” the spokesperson told the publication. “​This was a technical error that has since been resolved and all websites are being proxied the same as intended.”

Regardless of whether Facebook favoring its own services was intentional, net neutrality advocates may take issue with Discover, as might those who've suggested the company is using it to onboard Facebook and Instagram users in developing countries. These aren't necessarily new issues, however.

India blocked Free Basics in 2016 over net neutrality concerns and Egypt followed suit soon after when Facebook refused to enable government surveillance through the service. Citizen media nonprofit Global Voices criticized Free Basics in 2017 for failing to work properly in multilingual countries and only supporting a limited selection of websites, mostly originating in the US and UK. As such, users weren't able to access local services and information that might have been more beneficial to them.