How Facebook lost face in a digital face-off

Feb 11, 2016, India

Facebook has had a massive setback in its plans to capture India’s millions who are still not on the net. The Indian telecom regulator, TRAI, has just banned Facebook’s Free Basics service after a year long public debate on net neutrality, and differential pricing of internet services.

Free Basics is a free internet service that gives users access to a set of less than 50 websites, which is arbitarily decided by Facebook. The issue was that it gives websites on the platform the huge advantage of exclusive access to millions of Indians. Sites like Google, Amazon, etc are not on Free Basics. Innovative startups would suffer, as sites on Free Basics would just have too much of a competitive advantage. Free Basics is already allowed in certain countries, and Free Basics users there refer to Facebook when they mean internet. In short, Free Basics is leading the digital colonisation of the world.

TRAI had invited the public in India to comment on differential pricing of internet services. To their surprise, a majority of the replies were seemingly unrelated emails from Facebook users saying they love Free Basics. Not surprisingly, TRAI admonished Facebook for belittling the whole debate and turning it into an orchestrated opinion poll.

Actually, it was a brilliant misinformation ploy by Facebook, whereby it conned India’s Facebook users who believed in net neutrality to support a campaign against net neutrality.

How did they achieve this? Facebook understands that Indian net users are a savvy lot, and are aware of the public debate on net neutrality. But to support it, they have to read through TRAI’s consultation paper written in complex legal language, and then answer the questions in the paper.

Facebook knew few would have the patience to do this, but will support net neutrality if presented with an easy 1-click way to do so. See below.

The second part was harder. How do you fool someone who supports a cause, to vote against the same cause.

Here’s where Facebook got really crafty. They adopted the ‘confuse them if you can’t convince them’ strategy, and crafted an email petition for Indian Facebook users to send to TRAI with a minimum of effort. In this petition, Facebook coined a term ‘digital equality’ to describe the Free Basics service. This implied the goal of the service was to bring internet to all in India.

It was skilful piece of misinformation as Facebook conveniently avoided mentioning that Facebook would be the sole authority who decided what websites were allowed on Free Basics. As TRAI’s chairman put it, “If you are going on an expressway, the toll service provider should be only concerned about the toll, and not ask where you are going. These are the principles which we are saying you cannot charge differently based on content.”

The thing is Free Basics is based on differential pricing. So if you claimed to love Free Basics, it sort of meant you supported differential pricing.

But Facebook had not reckoned with the response of India’s net savvy users who were outraged at Facebook’s presumption that Indians are fools and can easily be taken for a ride. They launched a massive grassroots campaign to support net neutrality under the banner of savetheinternet.in, and attacked Facebook on several fronts, even using comedy to simplify the complicated message. Soon key players like Flipkart, India’s largest online retailer pulled out of Free Basics, and the matter came up before the Indian Parliament.

Worse followed, when TRAI discovered that Facebook had ignored TRAI’s request to ask Facebook users to email TRAI directly. That was possibly the last straw. TRAI refused to buy Facebook’s convoluted logic, and took a firm stand on the email feedback. They wanted to know if the Indian public supported differential pricing, and if yes why. The millions of emails from Facebook users were summarily dismissed as being irrelevant.

The whole exercise has been a disaster for Facebook India, as its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg had personally campaigned for Free Basics, lobbied the government, spoken directly to key players, and even met with the Prime Minister. He had even written an article in leading Indian newspaper questioning how free internet could be denied to India’s poor. Facebook also launched a massive advertising campaign in India supporting Free Basics.

Besides this, Facebook had made a previous attempt to gather support from Facebook users for Free Basics under its earlier name, internet.org.

The catch was you could not say ‘no’ to the pop up. As for internet.org, Facebook was forced to change the name when critics pointed out that the site didn’t even have 0.1% of the sites on the internet.

All in all, it’s been quite entertaining to observe Facebook’s Machiavellian but crude attempts to lead the digital colonisation of India’s offline millions.

it’s an odd world

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