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The hugging Prime Minister fails Zuckerberg

India, according to the Facebook Director, would have been better off had it remained under British rule. Coming from an American, it was a bit ironical.

India's Prime Minister and Facebook CEO at Facebook HQ, November 2015. Wikicommons/ Narendra Modi. Some rights reserved.India’s decision to uphold the principle of net neutrality and outlaw Facebook’s Free Basics service, suffused with symbolism and irony, has highlighted the emerging digital empires and features of neocolonialism.

“Free Basics” are two words that are unpacked differently by different sections. The critics point out that these do not mean what the FB wants these to mean. To put simply, this controversial service offers free data usage but only to the websites prescribed by this social networking site.

The two most seductive words “free” and “basics” failed to work their magic in India despite Facebook’s massive advertising campaign. India’s telecom regulators ruled that such a service violates the principle of net neutrality and disallowed any discriminatory pricing for accessing data. So the Free Basics service was wound up and India’s poor, in whose name Facebook had campaigned, did not protest.

The adverse decision momentarily unhinged a Facebook Director Marc Andreessen. He denounced India’s ban on Free Basics, and smelt the outdated anti-colonialism in India’s stand. He called it “another in a long line of economically suicidal decisions made by the Indian Government against its own citizens”. Mr. Andreessen tweeted: “Denying world’s poorest free partial connectivity, when today they have none, for ideological reasons, strikes me as morally wrong”.

The country, according to him, would have been better off had it remained under British rule. Coming from an American, it was a bit ironical. Mr. Andreessen only fanned the dying embers of anti-colonialism. Unwittingly, he drew public attention to the link between imperialism and neo-imperialism or corporate imperialism.

His Tweet caused a cyber storm and many ordinary users of Facebook and other netizens took to Twitter and started responding to the FB Director. “Being colonized was good for India and we should let FB do so”, wrote one. “Facebook clearly see themselves as the new East India Company, the colonial saviours of poor brown India”. References to the East India Company came up in many posts. One compared the Facebook’s scheme to an offer of a cooking gas cylinder given free with the condition that only one prescribed dish can be cooked!

Had Mr. Andreessen read The Tempest in his school, he would have asked his cyber critics to admit: “You gave me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” He could have asked them, “who gave you the means to curse?” He could have quoted Niall Ferguson in his support. But being a pragmatic businessman, Mr. Andreessen promptly withdrew his offensive tweets on India and praised the country where FB promises digital nirvana. Even post-colonialism scholars have joined the fray.

However, the damage to Facebook’s image was done. Neither Mr. Andreessen’s second thoughts nor Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s distancing himself from the FB Director’s tweets gave any relief to the Public Relations machine of this corporate giant whose financial clout is bigger than the combined GDP of some small nations.

In India, the protracted public consultations before the regulator’s ruling involved the policy wonks, pro-reform economists, activists and the Indian techies upscaling their innovative start-ups. These young men and women know the way the American corporations spread their tentacles. They warned against any move to let India become a “digital colony” for foreign interests to rig the rules and keep the native businessmen from flourishing.

Thanks to Mr. Andreessen, the net neutrality debate continues after the regulator’s decision. Even post-colonialism scholars have joined the fray. Prof. Deepika Bahri, who teaches English in the US, told The Atlantic that it is hard to ignore the family resemblances and recognisable DNA of colonialism. She listed the similarities as

1. Ride in like a savior

2. Bandy about words like equality, democracy, basic rights.

3. Mask the long-term profit motive.

4. Justify the logic of partial discrimination as better than nothing.

5. Partner with local elites and vested interests.

6. Accuse the critics of ingratitude.

Her arguments perhaps made the magazine entitle the report “Facebook and the New Colonialism: Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.”

The net neutrality debate has thrown up several related issues such as the abuse of the social networking platform, dangers of a monopoly, danger of social and political manipulation on a mass scale, manufacturing consent, and the need to provide unrestricted internet access to the poor as a public good.

Gift horses and mouths

Credit: Flickr/Raul Ramirez. Some rights reserved. Credit: Flickr/Raul Ramirez. Some rights reserved.What attracted much hostile attention is the massive advertising campaign that Facebook launched in order to influence the consultative process initiated by the telecom regulator. The corporation merrily spent millions of dollars on the campaign that covered billboards, the print and TV media. This was to mobilise the poor of India against any move by the Government to deny them a free gift by Facebook! Long-distance digital patriotism is already having some impact on domestic politics in some countries.

A wag remarked that these million of dollars misspent on a futile ad campaign could have been used to try and buy influence at a personal level! But bribing is not allowed by US law. The American companies complain that while their purse strings are tied, their European rivals secure orders in the Third World through unethical means!

Facebook did not stop at the massive ad campaign. It provided a template email in favour of Free Basics to be sent to the regulator by millions of its users in order to impress the regulator with the power of numbers! The regulator was not amused. Initially, by mistake that template was made available to the Facebook users in America also!

This intense and widespread campaign horrified even those who had not followed closely the net neutrality debate. Suppose a social networking site, commanding the following of millions of Indians, launches a lobbying campaign on the eve of an election in favour of economic policies advocated by a political party. Or for mobilising public opinion in favour of building a place of worship on a disputed site! So the issue of the misuse of the social networking platform entered the debate. Long-distance digital patriotism is already having some impact on domestic politics in some countries.

While there was irony in an American praising the British Empire, the Facebook fiasco shows that foreign corporations have yet to learn how India works and how it does not work. The winding up of Free Basics has a symbolic significance also. It sends the signal that India cannot be taken for granted.

Resistance and delay

Mr. Andreessen had not expected that India would dare to do this to Facebook. He may have also banked on the fact that India, not being China, would give a free run to Facebook!  China blocks sites. China has given a head start to its own versions of the digital services provided by the American giants. China has given a head start to its own versions of the digital services provided by the American giants. It made some American corporations part with their source codes for security reasons. Mark Zuckerberg keeps chasing the Chinese leaders to get a toehold in the largest market of internet users but Facebook and many other sites get blocked at will. No Chinese leader would think of tweeting because Twitter is not allowed!

France shows some token resistance to the American digital corporations in order to safeguard its financial and cultural interests. Barring China every country is careful while dealing with the hegemon. India’s record is very liberal. India spared the Union Carbide chief executive after the Bhopal gas tragedy. Can India ever think of abducting David Hadley, the American wanted for a crime in India?

In the telecom sector, unlike China, India is not using specific technical standards as non-tariff barriers. This has immensely helped foreign businesses interests in India. In fact, India’s plan to develop and set technical standards has not made much headway.

Moreover, the Government’s policies are being tweaked to accommodate the foreign business interests. And here was a formidable American business entity called Facebook. India’s cabinet ministers and bureaucrats are conscious of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s energetic campaign to woo foreign firms. The telecom ministry for long refrained from expressing any opinion on net neutrality and asked the questioners to wait for the regulator’s decision.

Surprise surprise

The decision did cause some surprise at home but perhaps Zuckerberg was even less prepared for it. He may have felt that the expensive ad campaign and email messages would do the job. Besides, last September in America, didn’t the Indian Prime Minister publicly hug him with warmth that would have melted the Arctic snow?

Zuckerberg had once visited India for spiritual solace. He must have heard of a hugging God woman of India granting the wishes of those whom she hugged. Alas, in the case of Zuckerberg, the hugging Indian Prime Minister failed! Zuckerberg has to now visit India for material solace. He knows India is the second largest potential market of internet users in the world!

About the author

L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. Edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul.  

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