By Rahul Bhatia
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.
Under Zuckerberg’s gaze, the boy’s profile page slowly emerged on a 2G connection. “Bandwidth issues,” Zuckerberg said to himself. He assured the children inside, and the villagers outside, that their connectivity problems would be fixed before his next visit.
Later that day, Zuckerberg returned to New Delhi, where he posted a picture of himself speaking with a child at the resource centre. “Seeing first-hand how people here are using the internet was an incredible experience,” he wrote. “One day, if we can connect every village, we can transform many more lives and improve the world for all of us. Chandauli is just the start.”
From Zuckerberg’s vantage point, high above the connected world he had helped create, India was a largely blank map. Many of its citizens – hundreds of millions of people – were clueless about the internet’s powers. If only they could see how easily they could form a community, how quickly they could turn into buyers and sellers of anything, how effortlessly they could find anything they needed – and so much more that they didn’t. Zuckerberg was convinced that Facebook could win them over, and even more convinced that this would change their lives for the better. He would bring India’s rural poor online quickly, and in great numbers, with an irresistible proposition: users would pay nothing at all to access a version of the internet curated by Facebook.
But where Zuckerberg saw the endless promise of a digital future, Indians came to see something more sinister. Seventeen months later, Facebook’s grand plans to bring India online had been halted by overwhelming local opposition – the biggest stumbling block the company had hit in its 12-year-history. In the end, it seemed, Facebook had acted as if it was giving India a gift. But it was not a gift Indians wanted.
In the charged days before Facebook went public in May 2012, its official filings contained a faint warning about the company’s future growth. In Europe and America, the company had gained users at an astonishing rate – but, as it ran out of new people to add, its expansion was slowing. On both continents, almost four out of five people had internet access, and more than half of them were already on Facebook.
In the rest of the world, Facebook’s business was booming, but it had the opposite problem: less than half the population was connected to the internet. For the social network to continue its astronomical growth, it needed those people to get online.
No country except China held the kind of potential that India did – and Facebook was banned in China. Without much effort, there were already around 100 million Facebook users in India by 2014, and the company judged its potential market to be several hundred million more.
“If you look at the literate population, which is a good proxy for how many people can be online, it’s about 700-800 million,” a Facebook employee who worked on the company’s plans for India told me. “That’s really the opportunity. If you rank countries based on opportunity, India comes out on top, and comes out on top by a big margin.” According to a Facebook executive, the company’s internal analysis projected that more than 30% of the new customers it hoped to add worldwide by 2020 would come from India.
But Facebook was not about to sit around waiting for them to get online on their own. Since 2010, the company had been experimenting with ways to bring more people online, and thus to Facebook. One of these experiments, the Facebook employee said, was a project referred to as Apollo.
Under Apollo, Facebook’s growth and partnership teams persuaded mobile phone companies in the Philippines, Latin America, Africa and India to give mobile phone users who had not paid for data plans free access to Facebook. The initial financial sacrifice, Facebook told the phone companies, was an investment – giving customers a small taste of the internet would convince them to start paying to access everything the web had to offer.
The best proof of this proposition came in the Philippines, where Facebook partnered with Globe – the smaller of the country’s two dominant mobile companies – which trailed its rival’s market share by 20 percentage points. Globe’s user numbers surged, and within 15 months, it had overtaken its rival, thanks to the enormous lure of free access to Facebook. “It all started with the free Facebook promo,” one Filipino stock analyst told a local business newspaper.
The success of such experiments fed into a much bigger plan Facebook had been developing: an ambitious effort to bring hundreds of millions of people around the world online. In February 2014, while the results of the Philippines experiment were trickling in, Zuckerberg stood on a stage at a mobile industry conference in Barcelona and pitched the phone companies its big plan: Internet.org , which would provide free basic internet services to entice the whole world online. The phone companies would foot the bill, but Zuckerberg laid out the economic benefits of helping the world’s poor to join the digital age: “There was this Deloitte study that came out the other day,” he told his audience, “that said if you could connect everyone in emerging markets, you could create more than 100 million jobs and bring a lot of people out of poverty.” The Deloitte study, which did indeed say this, was commissioned by Facebook, based on data provided by Facebook, and was about Facebook.
In July 2014, Zambia became the first country where Internet.org was rolled out. But Facebook was already preparing for India. A few months before Zuckerberg’s helicopter landed in Chandauli, Facebook contacted Osama Manzar of the Digital Empowerment Foundation to ask for his advice on tailoring Internet.org to a local audience.
Manzar is stocky, with a face that expresses delight instantly. In a room full of dark suits, he is the guy wearing the white kurta and the patterned turban. For months, Facebook employees working on Internet.org mined Manzar for information. “Just about anybody from Facebook in the US would land up at our office,” he told me. Facebook staff emailed and phoned him. “They had questions interns would have!” Manzar likes to say he guided them like a paid adviser, but without the pay. “It was taking a lot out of me, and I had no idea what the future of this huge amount of content-gathering was,” he told me.
Manzar, who is 48, had spent much of his life working to help Indians get online, and now one of the biggest tech companies in the world had thrown its weight behind his cause. “The power of Facebook as a platform, how it has motivated people to come online, generate content, get even the non-literate to become literate ... I am a great fan,” he said.
But Manzar’s optimism soured when he saw what Internet.org actually looked like: a threadbare platform that only allowed access to 36 bookmarked sites and Facebook, which was naturally the only social network available. There was one weather app, three sites for women’s issues, and the search engine Bing. Facebook’s stripped-down internet was reminiscent of old search engines that listed the early web on one page, when it was small enough to be categorised, like books in a library.
Crucially, Facebook itself would decide which sites were included on the platform. The company had positioned Internet.org as a philanthropic endeavour – backed by Zuckerberg’s lofty pronouncements that “connectivity is a human right” – but retained total control of the platform. “Their pitch about access turned into mobilisation for their own product,” Manzar said.
Manzar had never seen anything like it. He realised that if Internet.org took hold in India, Facebook would be the gatekeeper to the web for hundreds of millions who had no idea what the internet was, or what it could do for them.
As Zuckerberg travelled around the country in the autumn of 2014, he had every reason to be optimistic about Facebook’s India strategy. He received an ecstatically warm welcome from Indian politicians, who were eager to advertise their tech-savviness by being seen with Facebook’s founder. He was even granted an audience with India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who had built a sizeable online presence – with some help from Facebook – during the recent elections. The prime minister spoke with Zuckerberg about his “Clean India” mission – which encouraged citizens to tidy up their streets and towns – and Zuckerberg said Facebook would create an app for the programme. (This promise was widely reported, but the app never materialised. When employees inquired about it later, a senior Facebook policy director said that making the app would violate Facebook’s anti-corruption policies, according to documentation I was shown.)
Zuckerberg also got an easy ride from the Indian media, which churned out puff pieces about Facebook’s noble plans to get millions of Indians online. But the company remained vague about the detailed workings of Internet.org, and tech journalists began to voice their suspicions after an evasive press conference in New Delhi, where Zuckerberg only took questions from carefully selected reporters.
One of the sceptics was Nikhil Pahwa , the founder and editor of Medianama, a news site about India’s telecommunications industry, who left the press conference and began to outline his reservations about what Facebook was proposing. “What Zuckerberg means by internet for all, is essentially Facebook for all, along with a few non-profit services thrown in to give it the appearance of philanthropy,” he wrote the following day.
But what would prove devastating to Zuckerberg’s ambitions for India was something else that Pahwa noticed. Facebook had wandered into an arcane technical dispute – involving India’s phone companies and the idea of net neutrality – which was about to come to a boil.
What Zuckerberg means by internet for all, is essentially Facebook for all, with a few non-profit services thrown in
Internet.org would allow some commercial services – such as the employment site Babajob – to be available on its free platform. But that would necessarily mean excluding those companies’ competitors, and essentially subsidising the growth of a few chosen firms. Pahwa argued that this arrangement violated net neutrality – the principle that phone companies and internet providers should not be allowed to prioritise certain sites and services, since this could fundamentally alter the level playing field of the internet. The government had been debating the legality of services said to violate net neutrality. If it decided to issue a ruling on the subject, Facebook’s plans could be dashed.
Medianama, Pahwa’s website, was not widely read outside of the telecoms industry, but he was a respected voice in the field, and Facebook was sufficiently concerned about his criticism that the company invited him for a meeting in January 2015. Two senior officials were in the office: Ankhi Das, Facebook’s head of public policy in India, and Kevin Martin, the former chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, who was working as a consultant for the company. Pahwa was unwilling to speak about the meeting (“It was off the record,” he explained) but he said that “the sense I had was that Facebook was trying to understand how much I knew about Internet.org”.
In February 2015, four months after Zuckerberg’s visit, Internet.org went live in India, in partnership with Reliance Mobile, India’s fourth-largest phone company. (Several other operators declined, the Facebook employee told me, because they were already worried about the issue of net neutrality.) Reliance’s advertisements for the service showed college students crowding around a single phone, laughing at something on the screen. The tagline: “If the sun is free … If the air is free … Then why shouldn’t the internet be free?”
For a brief moment, it felt like a routine product launch – except for continued complaints from a small number of critics. Facebook responded to criticism by claiming that 40% of users were purchasing full data plans within a month – joining the full internet, in other words – but the critics fired back that as Facebook refused to provide further details these numbers could not be verified.
The debate between the company and its critics about the virtues of Internet.org would most likely have carried on quietly, without ever disturbing the attention of ordinary Indians. But at the end of March 2015, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) announced that it was considering a ruling on net neutrality, and asked for public comment on the issue. Any ruling would affect the fate of Internet.org.
For Pahwa, this was a worrying development. Even the term “net neutrality” was forbidding: “It’s a terrible, technical sounding phrase,” he said. The TRAI already seemed to have a tendency to come down on the side of the phone companies, and Pahwa believed his only chance of winning was to somehow gather huge public support. The regulator could ignore policy papers by telecom nerds. “What they can’t ignore is people,” Pahwa emailed a friend.
Luckily, at least in the public eye, his adversary was one of the world’s largest and most famous technology companies – and the playing field was a country whose citizens reacted with fierce antipathy to anything that looked like a foreign power dictating terms to grateful supplicants.
Pahwa fired off emails to several acquaintances, explaining that he felt the future of India’s internet was at stake. “People don’t realise what’s going on until it has happened,” he said. A group of volunteers – coders, lawyers, policy wonks – began to coalesce around Pahwa. Dubbing their movement Save the Internet, they built a website that would allow anyone to make a submission to the regulator in favour of net neutrality.
On 11 April, the website launched, featuring a video by a wildly popular group of young comedians, All India Bakchod – who produced a nine-minute net neutrality explainer that would eventually rack up 3.5 million views. Within two weeks, more than a million people had used the site to send emails to the government – and soon enough, politicians were debating net neutrality in parliament.
All of a sudden, a shockingly large number of Indians had been drawn into a loud and raucous public argument about the intricacies of the country’s telecoms policy. On one side, there was the unlikely sight of a popular online rebellion, among young and old alike, in favour of net neutrality – a concept almost nobody had heard of a few months earlier.
On the other side were the phone companies and Facebook, which was convinced that its plans would benefit the economy, lure a massive invisible population online, and help realise India’s ambitions to become a digital powerhouse. This side was not without its own impassioned supporters, and soon India’s fractious social media was tangled in thousands of bitter fights about whether Facebook was asking too much for the kind of progress it promised to provide.
On Twitter, supporters of net neutrality began to protest against companies that had partnered with Facebook. Before long, four websites withdrew their participation, and tweeted support for net neutrality on their way out.
All the while, from his office at Facebook HQ in Silicon Valley, Chris Daniels, the vice-president of Internet.org, watched with alarm as the opposition mounted in India. In particular, I was told by a person close to Daniels, the popularity of All India Bakchod’s video worried Facebook’s top brass. The company’s most senior leaders in India scrambled to assemble a response: according to a Facebook employee, their only idea was to “address myths” about Internet.org and “educate” policymakers about the platform. “Just answering their questions was the strategy,” the employee recalled.
To most onlookers, Facebook’s initial reaction suggested that the company was not taking the opposition seriously. Its efforts appeared clumsy and ineffective, especially for a company that rarely stumbles so visibly. Employees wondered what Facebook’s gameplan was. “To do things right, you need someone in policy who is a strategist and a skilful tactician,” the Facebook employee said. “Globally, yes, we have people like that. In India I’m not so sure.”
In private, Facebook’s efforts began to intensify. Zuckerberg began to make personal calls to Indian internet entrepreneurs to rebuild support for Internet.org. One person he contacted was a former senior executive of NASSCOM, India’s software industry lobby. The senior executive told Zuckerberg that he would support Internet.org – but only if Facebook opened up the platform to any company that wanted to participate. Zuckerberg promised him Facebook would make this change in the future. “Can we have your support now?” the executive recalled Zuckerberg asking. “We’ll make it a feature in Internet.org 2.0.”
Over the course of 2015, Facebook executives repeatedly met with lawmakers and the government’s regulators, who gave no indication when they would issue any decision on net neutrality. (In response to my questions, a Facebook spokesperson said the company had met with the chairman of India’s telecoms regulator to discuss “a range of connectivity issues”.)
Daniels, the Internet.org vice-president, made about six trips to India in 2015 to meet with policymakers, the Facebook employee recalled: “Those meetings were like a rollercoaster. Sometimes it would feel like lawmakers and regulators understood what Facebook was trying to do with Internet.org, and in some meetings somebody would make it sound like we would get shut down tomorrow.”
Facebook held its cards close, and tried to avoid public confrontation. At one parliamentary committee hearing, the company took the unusual step of asking if it could put its case to lawmakers in private, and had everyone else cleared out of the room. Ankhi Das, the company’s head of public policy – its top lobbyist, in other words – had uncommonly good access in Delhi’s corridors of power. Her presence seemed to open any door, a Facebook executive told me. “We used to joke that it was like she was Modi’s granddaughter.”
Modi had swept into office after a massive election victory in May 2014, thanks in part to a huge, well-organised online following. The person who ran Modi’s social media operation told me that Facebook was extraordinarily responsive to requests from the campaign, and recalled that Das “never said no” to any information the campaign wanted. However, a Facebook spokesperson insisted that the company had never provided special information or extra details to Modi’s campaign.
In the months after the election, Facebook’s interest in India was evident. Sheryl Sandberg met Modi soon after. A few months later, Zuckerberg paid him a visit. And in the midst of the net neutrality debate, Modi returned the favour by making an appearance before a large crowd at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters in September 2015, with Zuckerberg and Sandberg at his side.
The moment – a picture of solidarity – was broadcast live online, and did not go unnoticed back in India, where it was covered live on television. Pahwa, who had been invited into a TV studio to give his reaction, recalled that he feared Modi would announce his opposition to net neutrality on the spot.
Instead, Zuckerberg told Modi a cute story. “I haven’t told this publicly,” he began, anxiously. “Before things were going well, when people wanted to buy Facebook, I met my mentor, Steve Jobs.” The Apple CEO apparently urged Zuckerberg to visit a temple in India that he had gone to years earlier. “So I travelled for almost a month, seeing how people connected,” said Zuckerberg. “Having the opportunity to feel how much better the world could be if everyone had a stronger ability to connect reinforced for me the importance of what we were doing. That’s something I’ve always remembered while we built Facebook.”
Modi clapped and grinned.
A month after Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg returned to Delhi once again. At the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, Zuckerberg sauntered on to a stage and gave woolly answers to the softest of pre-selected questions. But when the talk ended, Zuckerberg was ushered to a nearby room, where many of India’s most prominent online entrepreneurs had been assembled for a closed-door meeting with him.
By now Internet.org had been rechristened Free Basics. The meeting was about how Facebook could help everyone there, one of the attendees recalled. However, the entrepreneurs wanted to talk about Free Basics. “Everybody started saying, ‘Well, why are you controlling who gets on this?’” recalled Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the proprietor of the popular mobile payments firm Paytm.
Zuckerberg assured them that Facebook would no longer retain the power to choose which sites were included. “He said he will not decide who will be on Free Basics. Some ‘eminent people’ of India will decide,” Sharma said. The entrepreneurs wanted Free Basics changed in many ways, and Sharma recalled Zuckerberg’s response as being, “I’ve heard your inputs, and we’ll try changing it.”
When it was Sharma’s turn to speak, he did not hide his feelings. “I said, ‘Zuck, what are you talking about?’ In my view, it’s like the British coming in and saying, ‘While everything’s OK, we’ll come in and help you with your tax collection – and this is the percentage we’ll take.’ It’s incredible.”
Several people involved in the debate over net neutrality shared Sharma’s disbelief. They told me that Facebook’s insistence on pushing through Free Basics without a transparent discussion was doing lasting damage to the company. “There was tone-deafness in the people who carried out the campaign,” Nitin Pai, the co-founder of an influential policy thinktank named the Takshashila Institution, told me. “You know that foreigners talking down to Indians and telling them what is good for them is going to backfire.”
Zuckerberg had tried to gain Sharma’s support. An endorsement by the boss of Paytm – one of India’s entrepreneurship success stories – would have been a signal to other companies to sign on, said the former NASSCOM executive. But Sharma had been consistent in his opposition to platforms like Free Basics.
You know that foreigners talking down to Indians and telling them what is good for them is going to backfire
“What is my perception of Facebook’s purpose? Thumbs up,” Sharma said when we met earlier this year at his office. “What is my judgment of their actions? It’s not correct. The purpose is nice. I want everybody in this country to be connected as much as Zuck wants. Who doesn’t want that? But are they doing it correctly?” He could not stop laughing as he imagined Facebook’s plans to serve India. “Someone isn’t advising them well. Let them provide the complete internet for free at night. We’ll partner with them,” he said, thumping his chest.
Within Facebook, the executive said, there existed a strong belief that the crises would pass; the regulator would eventually be pressed to give services such as Free Basics legal sanction and that would end the debate.
After months of foot-dragging, the telecoms regulator – under the influence of a new chairman – decided in November 2015 to hurry up and reach a decision on net neutrality. For the second time in a year, it asked the public to comment, on three specific questions relating to net neutrality and expanding internet access, with a deadline of 30 December.
There was no mention of Facebook or Free Basics. “Facebook did not figure much in the discussions,” a person involved in the telecoms regulator’s deliberations said. Instead, the regulator turned the debate’s glare away from Facebook, and on to the larger subject of net neutrality. By resolving the larger issue, they thought, the Free Basics question would sort itself out.
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 own in 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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