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Even before India’s internet regulator officially banned Facebook’s Free Basics platform, at least in its current form, it had already made its opinion of the social media giant evident. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India criticised Facebook for trying to turn a policy discourse into a majoritarian opinion poll, and called its campaign “crude” and “dangerous.” Now Marc Andreesen, a venture capitalist and director on Facebook’s board has made things even worse.
Andreesen had been involved in a discussion with Vikram Chachra, partner at an Indian seed capital firm, about the telecom regulator’s decision to ban Free Basics – Facebook’s product aimed at providing a version of the internet to users for free, with the social media company claiming it wanted to help connect those who don’t currently have access to the internet.
Andreessen’s reference to colonialism wasn’t the first time Facebook’s service had been compared to the East India Company, which (in short) provided “free” industrialisation to the country while slowly annexing land and eventually coming to rule the country.
Many had in fact made the reference to Free Basics being similar to colonialism, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s anguished op-ed wondering “who could possibly be against” Free Basics certainly had a whiff of the well-meaning colonial Westerner about it.
What was different about Andreessen’s colonial reference was that it was positive, bringing up the old argument that the East India Company and the British Raj had been good for India. (Shashi Tharoor had some thoughts on this, here).
Facebook was eventually not allowed to prevail in India because of the efforts of activists who argued that services like Free Basics violated the principle of net neutrality, which suggests roughly that all traffic on the internet should be treated the same.
Even if Free Basics claimed it was an open platform, the activists argued, it still could have potentially balkanised the internet. When the regulator eventually issued guidelines, it concluded much the same, saying services like Free Basics “militate against the very basis on which the internet has developed.”The regulator’s ruling has only spurred on the debate online in India, with some arguing that it was a knee-jerk decision because of the huge support that net neutrality activists had managed to drum up, while others insisted that it would help preserve the openness of the internet.
As you might imagine, Andreessen’s attempt to enter into this conversation by criticising “anti-colonialism” got a little pushback.
But the incident also served as a reminder of how tone-deaf some of the attempts to popularise Free Basics in India were. After Facebook got initial push-back from the net neutrality community when it attempted to introduce Free Basics’ predecessor, Internet.org, into the country, it changed the name from something that sounded both like the internet itself and a non-profit (it is neither) and sought to make the platform more open.
When even this did not suffice, it unleashed a marketing blitzkrieg, buying up tremendous amounts of ad space in newspapers and on billboards around the country, attempting to sell the idea that poor Indians would benefit from Free Basics. It seemed to miss out on the mistrust Indians have for massive corporations claiming to give things away and, as Zuckerberg pointed out, could not understand who could possibly be against freebies.
Things then got even worse when Facebook attempted to use its platform and users to influence the debate on Free Basics. Facebook users were encouraged to tell TRAI that they supported the service, prompting the regulator to point out that it wasn’t a poll about the Free Basics, but a policy consultation on differential pricing.
Facebook also accidentally opened up the campaign to users outside India making it seem even more suspicious how it was using its global platform to lobby TRAI. It eventually attempted to pivot, but was still told by TRAI that its campaign had been crude and dangerous.
Andreessen’s latest foray into the field, though not a part of Facebook’s official marketing efforts, only seemed to confirm the tone-deaf nature of Silicon Valley’s response to the Indian debate.