Free Basics And Facebook’s Waterloo In India

waterlooThe Telecom Regulatory Authority of India made a wise decision by banning Facebook’s Free Basics internet service. The project was ill-conceived and showed a lack of understanding of India’s culture and values. Mark Zuckerberg surely had good intentions in wanting to provide Internet access to hundreds of millions of people who lack access.  But he went about it in the wrong way. In the process, he alienated India’s technology community and weakened his support in the Indian government.

Free Basics was essentially a walled garden in which Facebook and the telecom providers selected which websites people could visit.  Rather than being able to do Google searches and explore the web as we are able to, users of Free Basics would live in a world in which Facebook was the center of the universe and experience only what it allowed them to. This is not an experience that any web user should have.

Facebook reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars in advertising and it implored all of its Indian users to send an email to the Telecom Regulatory Authority to support its program.

In its advertising, it used the example of a farmer named Ganesh, who would be able to find weather information and prepare for monsoons, look up commodity prices to get better deals, and invest in new crops and livestock.

The problem was that Ganesh would have a tainted view of the world and be able to use only a limited set of apps—and these were probably in the wrong language. India has dozens of languages and dialects.

There is no way that Facebook would have been able to or should have been allowed to determine what was right for Ganesh. This would be like a corporation or government dictating what services your hospital could offer and what treatments it would provide—or what books your children could read.

In using its money and platform to try to control public opinion, Facebook trampled over the nascent Indian technology community—which has been demanding the same level of net neutrality that Silicon Valley asks for. It didn’t listen to the people who were protesting against its program, it tried to drown out their voices.

This regulatory loss is a PR disaster for Facebook because Indians are now celebrating the victory over a foreign corporation that was trying to colonize parts of the Internet. Indians still cherish and celebrate the freedom that they gained from their British colonizers in 1947—who had tried to impose Victorian values.

Facebook acted arrogantly and didn’t attempt to understand Indian values and markets.

What is limiting the spread of the Internet in India isn’t the cost of mobile data. Cell phone plans and data access are really cheap there.  The problem is that most people can’t afford smartphones or tablet computers. But this is changing because prices of computing devices are dropping.

Lower-end smartphones can be already purchased for around $50 in India and data access costs as little as 50 cents for 100 MB. A farmer who can afford to buy such a device can certainly afford the data.

Facebook should have used the tens of millions of advertising dollars it spent to instead subsidize the purchase of smartphones. It could also have negotiated with the telecom carriers to bundle in unrestricted data access. This would have earned it applause and gratitude.

Facebook needs to consider such a strategy now. It needs to show Indian users that it really was trying to uplift the masses—rather than trying to lock them into its limited platform.