Vodacom zero rates basic Facebook use, but beware the Ts&Cs

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Ask those who like to go commando in short shorts, anyone on the receiving end of American cultural imperialism, or economists, and they’ll tell you, freedom always comes at a price. Ultimately, there’s no such thing as free, and Vodacom’s new Facebook Flex offering is no exception.

The deal is this: Vodacom’s making basic Facebook use free. And we do mean basic. Users who opt in for Facebook Flex can update their status or comment on posts without burning through any of their data allowance (or can do so if they’re out of data). However, once they want to do anything non-text based, like view a picture or video — or post one — they’ll have to switch back to the full-fat, paid for Facebook we all currently know and love/hate.

To sign up for Facebook Flex, Vodacom customers can either point their phone to www.facebook.com or dial *111*32# (at least, that’s what Vodacom tells us — when we tried the aforementioned USSD code this morning it wasn’t working).

Now, we all know the greatest lie digital denizens regularly tell is “I have read and understood the terms and conditions”, and we’re just as inclined as you are to hit agree without even glancing at Ts&Cs, but the ones Vodacom’s attached to Facebook Flex are definitely worth a look.

“By signing up for this experience, you grant Facebook permission to tell others about your use of Facebook for free on Vodacom network (sic).” In other words, Vodacom get’s to use your Facebook account to advertise Facebook Flex and your use thereof.

“Facebook may also share other information with your operator (including any of its group companies), about your use of Facebook’s services, including information such as your phone number or data usage in order to enable us and your operator to understand your use of the services.”

Ja, no, well fine. In reality, what this probably means is better targeted ads on your Facebook timeline, or more frequent calls from Vodacom phone jockeys trying to upsell you to a contract with a bigger data allowance or another “package for which you’ve been personally preselected”. But is that worth it for the ability to read text-based Facebook posts for free?

I guess that’s what y’all need to decide for yourselves. Us? We’ve long since deleted Facebook’s app from our phones because of the havoc it wrecks on our battery life (and because not having it or its incessant notifications mean we lose less of our lives to the blue timesuck of doom). But, as with all things tech, we appreciate that your mileage may vary.

Of course, Vodacom’s billing this as a means of “bridging the digital divide” and ensuring “digital inclusion”, but it’s clearly never actually used “free” Facebook before. We can tell you, it’s a pretty unpleasant experience. You can see the comments beneath a meme or snarky comic… but not the meme or comic itself. You can send someone a message, but not see the thumbs-up sticker they send you by way of reply.

See, that’s the problem with “free” services. They’re crippled versions of the full service, mediated by the supplier who gets to pick and choose which features its most cash-strapped customers can use. It’s not access for all, it’s all smartphone-owning animals are equal, but some smartphone-owning animals are more equal than others. But hey’s it’s free, right?

That said, Facebook Flex forms part of Vodacom’s new Siyakha initiative, which will be adding more useful zero-rated services, like free health content and the operator’s educational portals and careers and jobs websites to its offerings. Hopefully, those include the pictures at no extra charge.

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