Future

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 â€" 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” â€" 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 â€" videos, images, advertising, journalism, the offer of a startup as well as a big corporation’s like Facebook â€" 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 â€" too much is at stake.

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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