Why is there a difference in how the West sees Facebook’s Free Basics program and how India views it?

Of Marc, Mark and free Internet.

The Internet has been on fire for the past 24 hours after well respected Silicon Valley VC Marc Andreessen opined on the Indian regulatory ruling against Facebook’s Free Basics program. As someone who admires Marc for his global perspective, I do believe he is anti-colonialist and respects India and what the country has to offer in terms of talent and opportunity. His words were taken out of context and his apology is more than welcome to put all the undesirable ad hominem attacks to rest. Entrepreneur and VC Balaji Srinivasan’s defense of Marc is also well worth reading. But Marc’s original point and one that has been echoed by many well-respected technologists, warrants a broader discussion. Why is there a disconnect between what the Western world thinks as a nice gesture by Facebook but is seen as a bad move in India?
Free Basics by Facebook
Steve Sinofsky’s nuanced take on this problem is worth a read.
The broad backlash to the “Free Basics” program has been for two major reasons.
  1. Facebook’s building of an anti-net neutrality walled garden where only a privileged few are allowed has incensed the burgeoning startup scene in India. Facebook has welcomed anyone as a partner into the program but the initial set of partners were big players like Reliance. In a thriving economy like India where e-commerce is taking off in a huge way and new services are being rolled out almost daily, the Free Basics program threatens the very spirit of innovation. Something that was definitely not well received. To understand this better, look no further than what T-Mobile is doing with the Binge On program or Verizon is planning to do with its newly launched Go90 program. Through Free Basics, Facebook is effectively enabling one such program.
  2. Facebook’s PR approach to the whole affair has not been very good. Mark’s well-intentioned op-ed did not help the cause. Facebook stands to gain a broader audience with the success of the program. But by positioning Free Basics as something that “improves” the country– the whole article and press around it came across as colonialist. IMHO, Mark Zuckerberg is trying to straddle his philanthropic side with what is a smart business opportunity in one of Facebook’s largest markets. But it was not positioned thus. It felt like Facebook was doing its best to save India and India should lap it up. And this struck a raw nerve around the country.
Here is the thing. Free Basics is a poorly packaged solution to a real problem. And Facebook does have the opportunity to make a difference. But to make an impact, it needs to offer the Indian audience, the entire Internet. Not just Facebook’s version of it. And that gesture will be well received. Given that Facebook is the only name in the social network game, it will stand to gain when more people take to the Internet. Just as Google is attempting to offer free wifi in Indian railway stations. For large Internet incumbents, there will be a real benefit to being perceived as a partner to the growth of a large country like India. Not just a benefactor.
For all of Mark Zuckerberg’s critics and detractors, Facebook’s failure with the Free Basics program is gleeful fodder. But Mark is trying to merge his vision for the future of a connected world with his business interests as CEO of the largest social network in the world. There is a common ground to be had and Internet.org could be that, but not in this form. For it to be well received, it needs to be genuine in its intentions, open to all and be far more transparent than what it is currently. That could start with Facebook offering help with connectivity challenges, something India needs to solve quickly. Offering services could come later. Anil Dash has a great take on this in his comment to Mark’s post on Facebook.
In the end, India needs Facebook for helping its billions reach their friends, family and a global audience for their products. But Facebook also needs India for its future growth. By being transparent and honest about its intentions and trying to address it holistically, Facebook can achieve much greater long term success in the country.

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