How Facebook’s Hero Effort in India Failed 

 

by Jessica Chin

Technology giant Facebook labeled its efforts to bring a free mobile data plan to India as a humanitarian initiative to lift poor Indians out of poverty through Internet access, albeit only to a few selected websites. Instead, its efforts were thwarted by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, India’s independent regulator of telecommunications businesses, in February 2016, when the authority banned the service and concepts similar to it.

The ban came after countrywide backlash to the project, which Facebook founder, chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg originally titled Internet.org. Indian technology entrepreneurs, Internet service providers and citizens called the project an attack on network neutrality in the country and an attempt at digital colonialism, journalist and academic Siva Vaidhyanathan said in his lecture yesterday at the Charles B. Wang Center.

SivaVaidhyanathan, the Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies at the University of Virginia, discussed how Facebook’s seemingly altruistic project failed in India because of the company’s arrogance and misunderstanding of Indian culture. His lecture is a part of the Dr. Krishna Gujavarty Seminar on Leaderships & Values, presented by Stony Brook University’s Bishembarnath & Sheela Mattoo Center for India Studies.

The talk was co-sponsored by the School of Journalism.

“It was as if they had no Indians working at Facebook,” Vaidhyanathan said about the company’s campaign to offer a zero-rate mobile data plan. “You could not have constructed a campaign better tailored to alienate every section of Indian society.”

Facebook first angered network neutrality advocates.

Network neutrality, Vaidhyanathan explained, is the idea that the Internet should be a level competitive playing field, that no packet of data from one company should be favored over another, that no Internet service provider should be able to extort money by managing bandwidth speed.

Internet.org dented the level playing field by offering free access to Facebook, BBC News, Bing and other general-use websites, but not to competing services such as Google or The New York Times. Free Internet advocates argued this stripped consumers of the freedom to choose a service.

Facebook defended itself, saying its initiative wasn’t meant to attack network neutrality. It argued that giving poor Indians access to some Internet services was better than access to nothing. Network neutrality advocates remained unconvinced.

“One of the problems was the name Internet.org,” Vaidhyanathan said. “’Dot org’ indicated that it was a nonprofit charitable organization, which is what Facebook wanted people to believe.

“But the use of the word ‘Internet’ made it seem like Facebook was claiming itself as the Internet,” he continued. “There was no distinction between the Internet and Facebook. That meant what people would get from this service constituted the Internet!”

To network neutrality advocates and Indian technology companies, the name of the service was arrogant and imperialistic. In response, Facebook renamed the service “Free Basics,” which did little to alleviate the backlash.

Facebook also offended Indian technology companies when it did not seek to partner with them, implying that the Indian lacked “technological prowess,” as Vaidhyanathan described it.

Facebook also angered poverty workers and nationalists by attacking Indian values. Facebook’s “bombastic” and “grandiose” message that its Free Basics project was a selfless effort to lift poverty-stricken Indians upward was an insult to many Indians. To Indians, it reeked of the rich “white man’s burden’ attitude described in Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem.

“They were saying India could not take care of its people, its neighbors, you know, and no one wants to hear that,” Vaidhyanathan said.