The inside story of Facebook’s biggest setback(Long Read)

Discussion in 'Politics & Society' started by ezsasa, May 13, 2016.

  1. ezsasa

    ezsasa Senior Member Senior Member

    Jul 12, 2014
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    Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India
    This article is about Save the internet campaign last year, did not guess there was so much back story to this.

    Moral of the story is that facebook under-estimated indian public opinion and never tried to listen what people were actually saying.


    Until Mark Zuckerberg arrived in a bright orange helicopter in October 2014, Chandauli had never seen a celebrity visitor. One of 44,795 villages in the state of Rajasthan, Chandauli is only three or four hours’ drive from Delhi, but it exists alone and forgotten, tucked away, a kilometre off a quiet highway. Last year, when a local boy used the internet to buy a used motorcycle, astonished villagers called him an online shopping hero.

    Zuckerberg had come to see an experiment at work. Earlier that year, with its sights set on the forthcoming elections, the government had asked a foundation to help give Chandauli’s mostly Muslim villagers a digital education. And so, with uncommon haste, a small administrative building was turned into a community centre, where locals could learn how to access email and find information online. Soon, almost every household in the village had one person who knew how to use a computer.

    The digital transformation of Chandauli was an ideal story for Zuckerberg – a little parable for his grand mission for India. He wanted to bring the internet to millions of people who had never used it before.Specifically, he wanted to bring them a version of the internet that had Facebook at its core.

    After Zuckerberg landed, he was quickly guided by his advisers towards the community centre. He saw wheat fields and power lines, and a classroom with children sitting on a dirt floor. The heat warped the horizon. A crowd trailed behind him, talking excitedly about the man they called “Juckerberg”. But once he stepped inside the centre, the door was closed and latched.

    Zuckerberg took a seat on a plastic stool, and awkwardly asked the village children about how they used the centre’s computers. His stiff manner, combined with the presence of a reporter from Time magazine, and a Facebook photographer documenting the encounter, added to the sensation that the locals were playing parts in a performance directed by the company.

    But not everything went according to plan. The electricity had gone out shortly after Zuckerberg arrived, taking with it the wireless network that provided the village’s main connection to the internet. Instead, one of the boys showed Zuckerberg his mobile phone, and tried to bring up his Facebook profile page. This roused the CEO. “He genuinely wanted to know what they did on their phones, and how they spent time on the internet,” said Osama Manzar, the co-founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation that had set up Chandauli’s digital literacy centre.

    A billboard advert for Facebook’s Free Basics initiative in Mumbai. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
    But Facebook panicked. The company saw the regulator’s public questions as an existential threat, and within a week, Facebook’s marketing and policy teams launched a scorched-earth campaign to rally support.

    Every user in India who logged into Facebook was greeted with a special message from Facebook, which said: “Free Basics is a first step to connecting 1 billion Indians to the opportunities online. But without your support, it could be banned in a matter of weeks.” Below the message, a large purple button invited users to click and “send email” to the regulator. If this was not intrusive enough, many users complained that even if they declined to send the message, merely lingering on the page caused Facebook to send all their friends a notification indicating they had written to the regulator. Online, outrage at the heavy-handed tactics erupted. “FB just listed an uncle’s account as having signed up to support Free Basics,” one user tweeted. “He passed away two years ago.”

    Facebook had succeeded, overwhelmingly, in making the larger ruling on net neutrality about itself. As Pahwa told me: “Facebook came and shoved its ass in our faces.”

    Commuters on India’s roads and highways found themselves called upon to support Free Basics from what seemed like thousands of billboards. One pictured a farmer and his family and asked them to support “a better future” for unconnected Indians such as “Ganesh”, who used Free Basics and learned “new farming techniques that doubled his crop yield”. Patriotic Facebook advertisements filled entire pages in Indian newspapers every day. By the end of the year, the Indian business daily Mint reported that Facebook had spent more than £30m on advertising. “It felt like a tidal wave,” Pahwa recalled.

    Two days before the deadline set by the regulator, an editorial by Zuckerberg was published in the Times of India, the country’s largest newspaper. “Critics of free basic internet services should remember that everything we’re doing is about serving people like Ganesh,” he wrote, in reference to the farmer who had featured in Facebook’s ad campaign. Pahwa responded with an op-ed of his ownin the same paper.

    Behind the scenes, Zuckerberg made one final offer to India’s software industry. NASSCOM, the software lobby, had come out for net neutrality earlier in the year. But now, days before the deadline, its members were abuzz about the deal Zuckerberg had proposed – the lobby group itself would hold the power to decide which sites were on Facebook’s platform. “That suddenly made them say, ‘Man, that would put us in a very powerful position,’” the former NASSCOM executive told me. The software lobby quietly changed its tune: it told the regulator it supported net neutrality, with an exception for “short-term business promotions” – like Free Basics.

    According to Facebook, 16 million users in India sent messages to the regulator to support Free Basics before the deadline. Swamped with feedback, the regulator used custom-built programs to sift out the original replies. A pattern emerged immediately; the comments in support of Free Basics that Facebook had submitted did not address the questions the regulators had asked. The regulator worried that Free Basics’ supporters were not “making informed decisions” and chastised Facebook for reducing the consultation to a popularity contest.

    The regulator spent the month of January 2016 preparing its ruling. The meetings ran on for hours every day. But the discussions were about the details of a stance that had already been decided: net neutrality would be upheld. “We could have kept going on discussing it, but someone has got to stop,” a person closely involved in the process said. “So we just stopped on 8 February.” Services such as Free Basics were effectively declared illegal.

    Many of Facebook’s supporters – in India and abroad – were aghast: why would a poor country reject the assistance of one of the world’s biggest and most powerful tech companies? Marc Andreessen, the powerful venture capitalist who sits on Facebook’s board, contemptuously suggested a misguided resentment of the west was to blame. “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for India for decades,” he told his 500,000 Twitter followers. “Why stop now?”


    When I mentioned this quote to the Facebook executive, he raised his voice in frustration. “There’s no respect, and you can see that from Marc Andreessen. They wouldn’t dare to say that about China. In India they’re fine because we’ve been bending over backwards to accommodate them. I’m a supporter of prime minister Modi, but I don’t know why he has let this go on.” He bet me that Andreessen would apologise by the end of the next day. As we spoke, Andreessen tweeted an apology.

    Senior people at Facebook, the executive said, had convinced themselves they had special pull with the prime minister. “They believed Modi would do it for them,” he said, recalling meetings where people discussed the similarities in “managing” India and Africa: “It worked in Burundi, so it should work in India.”

    “I think the mistake that people make is that they think, ‘India is this developing country and there are these back-channel ways of getting things done,’” the Facebook employee told me. “In essence, the mistake of thinking that a third-world country is a banana republic. So institutions, the public, the press – they can be bypassed.” He recalled a whiff of disrespect that lingered in meeting rooms and on conference calls. “You can sense it in the way that some of these things have been approached. It’s like, ‘If we show support for Free Basics from six million users, the government can’t shut it down’.”

    “We are not a Tanzania,” Pai, the thinktank founder, said. “We are producing apps, and it is an economic pillar to our success. So we shouldn’t give over our keys to anyone. We should be careful of putting market power in the hands of one or two companies.” Several people who had been lobbied by Facebook – and a few insiders at the company – remarked with distaste that the company had “no skin in the game”, as one put it. “The pipes belong to the phone companies, and they pay the marketing costs of bringing new users online,” the former NASSCOM executive said. “So what exactly did Facebook bring here?”

    When I asked the Facebook executive why the company had failed to heed the growing protests and carried on fighting so hard for Free Basics, he pointed to Zuckerberg’s intense belief in Facebook’s mission. “This happens every time Facebook pushes out a new change,” he said. “New privacy settings? People protest, Facebook changes it just a little, and people get used to it. The same thing probably happened here. Mark would have thought people would get used to it.”

    In the months after the ruling, Facebook went quiet in India. The company’s managing director there was transferred, and there were murmurs within Facebook that a new person was being hired to head up Free Basics in India. But the bustle and combativeness of the previous year was gone. The company seemed to be turning its attention to China. In March, Zuckerberg was photographed on a jog in Beijing, where he was mocked online for declining to wear a face mask in deference to his hosts, despite the smog. The next day, Zuckerberg – who has been brushing up on his Mandarin – had a meeting with China’s propaganda chief, Liu Yunshan. According to official reports in the local media, the Facebook founder vowed he would work with Chinese peers to “build a better world in cyberspace”.

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