Facebook Free Basics and Wikipedia Zero used to set up clandestine file-sharing network

Angolan users found a novel way to exploit Facebook Free Basics and Wikipedia Zero by setting up a free, file-sharing network


Zero rating plans like Facebook's Free Basics and Wikipedia Zero may have been given the boot in India, but that doesn't mean they're not in use elsewhere in the world. Angola, a developing country with limited, and expensive, Internet access, has found a novel use for those services.

A zero-rating plan like Free Basics or Wikipedia Zero means that accessing those websites doesn't impact your data plan, provided you're on a participating network. Wikipedia and Facebook partnered with Unitell, an Angolan telecom operator, to provide such services.

Angolan users however, quickly found a loophole that they could exploit. Wikipedia is an open encyclopedia where users are allowed full freedom to edit articles, it's their raison d'être. However, users can also upload files to Wikipedia, within the bounds of copyright of course. Angolan users figured out that they could upload movies, anime, TV shows and more as long as they're hidden as jpg images or pdf files. Since access to Wikipedia Zero is free in Angola, Angolan users won't suffer data charges when sharing those files. Given Angola's lax copyright laws, this is even easier for Angolans.

Enter Facebook's Free Basics. The main problem with uploading pirated content to Wikipedia servers, from an Angolan's perspective, is how to share that data with the "right" people. Since Facebook is also free to Angolans, they organised themselves into closed groups and started sharing the relevant information with each other, for free.

The result is a free file-sharing network that anyone in Angola (on Unitell) can access.

Motherboard covered the story in detail and even spoke to Wikipedia on the matter. Wikipedia told Motherboard that they've been aware of the issue since "last summer" and have been working on ways to fix the problem.

Banning Angolan users from editing Wikipedia outright was suggested, but it's not an option that Wikipedia wants to consider. Wikipedia is doing its best to pull down the infringing content as and when it finds such content, but it's a tedious process. They've tried banning whole ranges of IP addresses as well, but that only resulted in many legitimate editors being locked out.

Wikipedia wants to find a way of dealing with the problem that doesn’t involve banning Angolans, but which would also allow Wikipedia to operate in a manner that's in-line with its beliefs. That last is doubly important given the fact that Angola isn't the only country with Wikipedia Zero and if other countries catch on, if they haven't already, it wouldn't do to give them access to Wikipedia and then ban them from it entirely.

So far, the only real solution they've been able to come up with is to devise some sort of algorithm to separate the pirated content, but it's still a work in progress and too early to comment on the viability of such a program.

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