India

India To Zuckerberg: We Don't Believe Facebook's Big PR Lie

Anti-colonialism's echo: India balks at Mark Zuckerberg's plans of offering free but limited Internet access, which is ultimately aimed at boosting Facebooks' numbers. Will the rest of the world follow?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in New Delhi in 2014
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in New Delhi in 2014
Johannes Boie

-OpEd-

MUNICH — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has big ambitions for India: to connect the digitally undersupplied South Asian subcontinent to the Internet. In December, he touted his plans in an article in The Times of India, arguing that connecting to the Internet means connecting to the job market, to education, to health care and communication. In order for India to further develop economically, a billion people would have to be connected to the Internet.

Yet when Mark Zuckerberg speaks of "the Internet," he's speaking of nothing but Facebook.

His article is written proof of the big PR lie that Zuckerberg has been hocking for years, from one country to the next. In reality, Zuckerberg never planned on connecting billion of Indians to the Internet, as he claims in his article. Zuckerberg wants to connect them with Facebook, at all costs. And secretly, he hoped, he could pull that off without anyone noticing. He made a point of calling his project "internet.org" — and not "facebook.org."

The young billionaire has spared neither time, money nor energy to try to achieve his goal. He invited users to write letters to the Indian authority pleading to support him. Facebook paid millions of dollars for advertising in India. And last September, Zuckerberg welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Facebook headquarters in California. After all, there are already 40, often even poorer, countries that have accepted Zuckerberg's gift of access to Facebook, which, obviously, doesn't require any access to the Internet.

Users are clients

But India has balked at Facebook's request, with the national telecom regulator ordering Reliance Communication Ltd., Facebook's local business partner, to halt the free service in the name of "net neutrality."

Net neutrality means, broadly speaking, that any type of content online — videos, images, advertising, journalism, the offer of a startup as well as a big corporation's like Facebook — needs to be able to reach users the same way, without additional costs or time, and without requiring a special service. The U.S. too has adopted similar guidelines on net neutrality, aiming essentially to create equal conditions for all Internet users.

Zuckerberg's initiative, on the other hand, envisages allowing the user access to only Facebook and a handful of other selected websites. Many in India saw this as colonial-type behavior.

No wonder that alongside the skepticism of government authorities, a popular movement against Facebook's plans in India has emerged. Universities as well as CEOs are publishing protest letters. Indian companies are supporting each other on the site "SaveTheInternet.in," while Indian newscasts regularly report on net neutrality.

The Californian company is largely deaf to the protests, and keeps repeating that the program is about creating jobs, providing education and expanding communication. It is true, after all, that somebody has to connect the rural areas of India to the Internet, and the sooner the better.

Zuck's war

India's authorities saw through Facebook's rhetoric, which happened to be missing some important facts: A billion Indians on Facebook would be a major new market for Facebook, whose growth is flattening in the U.S. and Europe. Because new users also means new data from one billion people for Facebook, there is more money to be made on advertising.

So it is clearly very profitable for Facebook to "bring the Internet," including to far away places in the Indian countryside, even if Zuckerberg is trying to make a mark as a humanitarian. So India's rejection of the public relations and lobbying of the American social network is a major global affair.

Economists say that services like Facebook's "internet.org" harm the economy in the medium to long term, because the newly connected people can surf on Facebook, but not on the sites of small startups, for instance. It is not surprising that startup founders in India were some of the most vehement opponents of the plans.

By denying Zuckerberg's offer, India could become a role model for other emerging nations. But you can bet that Facebook won't give up so quickly on its Indian ambitions — too much is at stake.

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