How Facebook flubbed bringing free Internet to India

The inside story of Facebook’s biggest setback – Rahul Bhatia, The Guardian

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.

From a business standpoint, Facebook wanted to get India online faster because growth in Europe and America was slowing down. People who were going to go online on those two continents were already online. China was a huge market where Facebook was blocked. That left India, with a potential of 700 million to 800 million new users.

Facebook conceived Internet.org, later renamed as Free Basics, as a way of getting India’s poorest citizens a limited version of the Internet for free.

Osama Manzar, of India’s Digital Empowerment Foundation, was initially enthralled with the plan.

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….

“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.”

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