Instagram first tested a “lite” version of its app in Mexico in 2018. Intended for Android users with limited bandwidth or low-memory phones, the app found broader appeal with people in places like the Philippines, Kenya, and Peru, though Mexico accounted for over 60% of total installs, according to one estimate. But then, last May, Instagram Lite vanished from app stores worldwide. The social network promised an updated version was in the works. 

On Wednesday, Facebook finally unveiled the latest iteration of the app. But rather than catering to users in Mexico, the new version of Instagram Lite appears aimed at people in India. It’s the only country where users of Instagram Lite can view Reels, the platform’s short-format video feature. The India-only deployment appears to be Facebook’s bid to fill the void left by TikTok after it was banned in the country last June, along with dozens of other apps made by Chinese developers. At the time, India was TikTok’s largest market outside of China, with roughly 200 million monthly active users. 

Facebook announced today that Instagram Lite will be rolled out to Android users in 170 countries over the next few months. Despite the global framing, India is clearly the primary focus: the app’s promotional materials prominently feature Indian content creators and dummy posts geotagged in India, and the app was already re-released there late last year. In a blog post, the team behind Instagram Lite said that, in order to keep performance reliable, they removed “much of the ornate, data-rich animation, such as cube transitions or AR filters people can apply onto faces” and “kept features that could deliver joy for less data, like GIFs and stickers.”

Instagram Lite faces an uphill battle in India. The government’s ban on TikTok incentivized domestic developers to create a flood of short-video apps that capitalized on negative public sentiment toward foreign tech companies. Over the past few months, homegrown apps similar to TikTok like Josh, Roposo, ShareChat, and MX TakaTak have skyrocketed in popularity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has also begun cracking down on free expression online and has signaled it’s increasingly interested in regulating tech companies

Last month, the government released new guidelines for social media firms requiring that they appoint local representatives to comply with government data and content removal requests. The Wall Street Journal reported that employees from Facebook and WhatsApp have been threatened with jail time for refusing to comply with previous requests related to India’s ongoing farmers’ protests. (Over the last year, however, the Indian government still approved two major deals involving Facebook, including allowing it to launch WhatsApp Pay in India and make a major investment in Reliance Jio, an Indian telecommunications giant.)

Instagram

Instagram Lite does have one distinct advantage: it uses only 2 megabytes of data, far less than the 30 megabytes the main Instagram app uses. Like the preexisting Lite version of Facebook’s core app, it offloads much of its code and functionality to the cloud. But in order to stay compact, the pared-down version of Instagram presents users in India with one major drawback: they can get hooked on watching Reels but can’t actually share any short videos they’ve created themselves. They’ll need the full-sized version for that. 

“In terms of uploading their own Reels, we don’t currently support that on Instagram Lite in India,” said Instagram Lite product manager Nicholas Brown at a Zoom press conference on Tuesday. Brown called short-form video “a core interest from our target users” in India and said Reels was in “healthy competition” with homegrown apps.

“It’s been interesting testing in different countries. Every country has a different usage pattern,” said Brown. “I think the most notable one is we’ve seen a deep interest in Reels, and that’s just a journey we are starting in India.” He added that Facebook doesn’t have plans to bring Reels to other markets for Instagram Lite. For now, it will remain inaccessible to the other 169 countries where the app will be available.

Facebook has done everything it can to reach new users around the world, including developing drones that were supposed to bring internet access to hard-to-reach regions and striking deals with telecom companies to make using Facebook exempt from mobile data fees. The latter program, called Free Basics, packages a text-only mobile version of Facebook with other zero- or low-data versions of news, health, and job sites. Facebook claims to have helped 100 million people get online since Free Basics launched. But critics say the company has effectively positioned its product as a gateway to the broader internet and privileged certain services and information over others, without transparency.  In 2016, Facebook’s Free Basics project was banned by India’s government after digital rights activists successfully argued it violated net neutrality, the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally by service providers.

Instagram Lite may not be intended as a pathway to the internet for new users but instead as a mechanism for integrating people who already use Facebook and WhatsApp further into the company’s app ecosystem. During the press conference Tuesday, Facebook declined to share numbers on how many users Instagram Lite currently had.

“What they’re doing is coming in and getting people’s data, and using that to make more money off of their services.”

Ellery Biddle, editorial director of the Ranking Digital Rights program at New America, a think tank, said there’s nothing novel about Facebook’s approach. The company’s tactics reflect how Silicon Valley tech companies have addressed the majority of the world’s mobile internet users for years. “As much as Facebook wants to tell a story about them being some benevolent force helping people get internet access, what they’re doing is coming in and getting people’s data, and using that to make more money off of their services,” Biddle said.

Most of the world’s mobile internet users prepay for expensive data plans and contend with regular caps on their usage. Biddle said that, in many cases, people who rely on Lite versions of Facebook and Instagram aren’t new to the platforms but people looking to get the most mileage out of their limited data plans. India, though, has some of the cheapest data rates in the world, suggesting Facebook may be targeting the poorest consumers in the country who aren’t yet online.

Toussaint Nothias, associate director of research at Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab, studied the use of Facebook’s Free Basics program in Africa and found it was made available in at least 32 countries. “While Facebook initially presented the project as philanthropy targeting unconnected rural communities, it follows a gateway drug commercial model: this sample of connectivity will spur greater data consumption and, in the process, grow Facebook’s user base,” Nothias wrote. The risk for Facebook is that people will view Instagram Lite with the same skepticism, even if it helps them save on data costs.