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Egypt blocked Free Basics over privacy battle

Fri 1 Apr 2016

Free Basics Egypt

Two sources who claim to be part of the discussions between Facebook and the Egyptian government stated today that the company’s Free Basics Internet service was blocked in Egypt because Facebook refused to allow the Egyptian government to spy on users.

Free Basics was launched in Egypt in October 2015, and cancelled in December 2015. Because the decision to cancel Free Basics access came just one week after a similar action in India over net neutrality concerns, it was easy to believe that the Egypt decision was based on net neutrality concerns as well. At the time, the government said simply that Facebook had only ever been approved for a two-month contract with Egyptian provider Etisalat, and that the contract would not be renewed. The statement today, though, shows that this was not the case. Two sources came forward to say that the Egyptian government demanded access to user’s private information. They wanted to circumvent the security measures within Free Basics in order to spy on users. While the sources declined to state exactly what it was the government wanted to access, they did say that it was Facebook’s refusal to allow the government access to private information that led to the decision to cancel Free Basics Internet in Egypt.

Free Basics is available in 37 countries with unreliable internet services and is a major part of Facebook’s internet initiative for growing their user base worldwide. In September 2015, Facebook strengthened the privacy protections for users of Free Basics after the service was criticized for not doing enough to protect user’s private information. The previous version of Free Basics didn’t allow for seamless connectivity to HTTPS sites, leaving web-based email and other private transactions unsecured.

At the time of the December 2015 cancellation, Facebook said that it had three million users in Egypt, with 1 million of those people who had no internet access at all prior to the advent of Free Basics. The decision to cancel Free Basics in Egypt came at around the same time the Free Basics service rollout was cancelled in India due to net neutrality concerns. In India, the fact that Facebook was offering free internet service to a limited number of sites endorsed by Facebook left other websites at a disadvantage. In Egypt, the stated reason for cancelling Free Basics access was for free competition. A spokesman for the Egyptian government, Mohamed Hanafi, said, “The service was offered free of charge to the consumer, and the national telecommunications regulator saw the service as harmful to companies and their competitors.”


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