Facebook says it’s helping millions of the world’s poorest people get online through apps and services that allow them to use internet data free. Internal company documents show that many of these people end up being charged in amounts that collectively add up to an estimated millions of dollars a month.
To attract new users, Facebook made deals with cellular carriers in countries including Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines to let low-income people use a limited version of Facebook and browse some other websites without data charges. Many of the users have inexpensive cellphone plans that cost just a few dollars a month, often prepaid, for phone service and a small amount of internet data.
Because of software problems at Facebook, which it has known about and failed to correct for months, people using the apps in free mode are getting unexpectedly charged by local cellular carriers for using data. In many cases they only discover this when their prepaid plans are drained of funds.
In internal documents, employees of Facebook parent
Meta Platforms Inc.
acknowledge this is a problem. Charging people for services Facebook says are free “breaches our transparency principle,” an employee wrote in an October memo.
In the year ended July 2021, charges made by the cellular carriers to users of Facebook’s free-data products grew to an estimated total of $7.8 million a month, when purchasing power adjustments were made, from about $1.3 million a year earlier, according to a Facebook document.
The documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal were written in the fall of 2021 and are not part of the information made public by whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager.
Facebook calls the problem “leakage,” since paid services are leaking into the free apps and services. It defines leakage in internal documents as, “When users are in Free Mode and believe that the data they are using is being covered by their carrier networks, even though these users are actually paying for the data themselves.”
A Meta spokesman said Facebook has received reports from users about data leakage and has investigated them. “We’ve continued work trying to resolve the issue we’ve identified.” He said the company has mitigated most of the problem and that work continues. The spokesman said new versions of free mode are labeled “text only” and don’t prominently display the words “Free mode,” although previous versions still in use continue to do so. He said the company is working on updates.
The spokesman said free-mode users are notified when they sign up that videos aren’t free. They are supposed to get a notification that they will be charged if they click on a video, but it doesn’t always work. He said Facebook is working to fix that.
The spokesman said the estimate of the additional monthly data charges isn’t based