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Free Basics And Facebooks Waterloo In India

Author : Vivek Wadhwa
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waterlooThe Telecom Regulatory Authority of India made a wise decision bybanning Facebooks Free Basics internet service. The project was ill-conceived and showed a lack of understanding of Indias 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 Indias 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.

Facebookreportedly spent tens of millions of dollars in advertisingand 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 appsand 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 provideor 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 communitywhich has been demanding the same level of net neutrality that Silicon Valley asks for. It didnt 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 1947who had tried to impose Victorian values.

Facebook acted arrogantly and didnt attempt to understand Indian values and markets.

What is limiting the spread of the Internet in India isnt the cost of mobile data. Cell phone plans and data access are really cheap there. The problem is that most people cant 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 massesrather than trying to lock them into its limited platform.

About Author
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University; Fellow, Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; and distinguished visiting scholar, Halle Institute of Global Learning, Emory University. He is author of ”The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent”–which was named by The Economist as a Book of the Year of 2012.

Wadhwa oversees the academic programs at Singularity University, which educates a select group of leaders about the exponentially growing technologies that are soon going to change our world. These advances—in fields such as robotics, A.I., computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials—are making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only for governments and large corporations to do: solve the grand challenges in education, water, food, shelter, health, and security.

Website: http://wadhwa.com/2016/02/08/free-basics-and-facebooks-waterloo-in-india/


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