After cancelling a series of products originally developed by Israeli companies, such as the facial recognition algorithm of Face.com and the web analytics system of Onavo, this week Meta closed down the WiFi networks product it sold in developing countries, Express Wi-Fi. This project was managed from Israel, among other places, and originated in the family of products developed by the company after it bought a third Israeli company, called Snaptu, which was in fact its first acquisition in Israel, in 2011.
While the products of Face.com and Onavo drew criticism for eroding user's privacy, the products sold to developing countries that Meta rolled out in recent years enjoyed general approval.
When Meta was still called Facebook, it took care to present its infrastructure activity in emerging economies as helping to close gaps between developing countries and developed countries and between men and women in Internet access, and to create new jobs and restore school hours that had been lost to the coronavirus pandemic. But Frances Haugen, who managed the product in Facebook's Civic Integrity unit, and who leaked sensitive Facebook documents in October last year, sharply criticized the project, and connected it directly to violent confrontations in Myanmar ad Ethiopia.
The main criticism voiced by Facebook employees of the company's conduct even before Haugen's revelations was to do with the fact that its Connectivity department, which was responsible for the product, contributed to the spread of Facebook around the world and among speakers of thousands of languages, but the company behind it did not adequately monitor violent and inflammatory discourse, as it does in 50 more common languages, while at the same time the Facebook Feed algorithm, which tends to promote polarization and incitement rather than neutral and unifying discourse, was particularly popular in developing countries.
Among all the projects aimed at developing countries, Facebook's Express Wi-Fi was actually considered a neutral product, in that it did not directly promote the Facebook app, but rather enabled telecommunications carriers to offer an Internet connection via Wi-Fi rather than through data services.
Express Wi-Fi connected deprived areas to wireless Internet through cooperation with ISPs, equipment manufacturers and local sellers, with finance from Meta. Local telecommunications companies and business owners were recruited to build a network of hotspots, providing people with many contiguous areas of coverage. In India, for example, a subscriber to the service using a few hundred megabytes a month would end up paying the equivalent of about NIS 0.50 monthly, and an unlimited package could cost NIS 10 monthly. In the past, this activity was entirely managed by an Israeli, Guy Mordecai.
There is no change in the second product that Meta offers in developing countries: Facebook Lite, a low-volume version of the main app that can work on unsophisticated telephones, such as smartphones using second generation technology networks.
It is believed that despite the shutting down of the product, because of the shortage of high-quality technology staff Meta will not lay off employees, but will move them to other units. "Our teams in Tel Aviv will continue to develop network connectivity products - we will make announcements about that in the coming months," the company stated.
"Together with our partners, we helped expand public Wi-Fi access for people in more than 30 countries via the Express Wi-Fi platform. While we are concluding our work on this program to focus on developing other projects, we remain committed to working with partners across the telecom ecosystem to deliver better connectivity," Meta said.
This week, another Meta product for developing countries came in for criticism. An investigation published in "The Wall Street Journal" revealed that Meta had mistakenly charged users of a free, much scaled-down version of Facebook in Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines with a monthly user fee. The charge arose form a fault in the app, which failed to warn users that they were switching from free use, which allows them to read texts only, to paid use, which allows viewing of pictures and video as well.
According to internal Facebook documents that reached "The Wall Street Journal", separately from Frances Haugen's disclosures, these charges amounted to millions of dollars last year. According to the newspaper, many users discovered the charges only when their pre-paid accounts with the mobile carriers that had sold them the telecommunications packages jointly with Facebook ran out. A spokesperson for Meta told "The Wall Street Journal" that the error, which would be fixed, led to overcharges amounting to a total of $3 million a month.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 1, 2022.
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