Is There Such a Thing as Facebook Colonialism?

In a row over how to bring Internet access to India's poorest, Facebook almost sounds colonial.

Facebook and India disagree on how to bring the Internet to India’s poorest citizens. This week, India banned certain free mobile data services, which includes Facebook’s Free Basics program. Known as zero-data programs, regulators argued that services like Free Basics should not be allowed to “shape the users’ Internet experience” by providing free access only to certain services. That is, Free Basics violates the concept of net neutrality and therefore should be prohibited.

Free Basics provides free text-only access to the Internet. It is offered in 38 countries and reaches a billion people across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. India’s prohibition of the service reflects a growing concern by Indian regulators that it causes Indian citizens to prefer some Internet services, like Facebook, over others. “What we want is for everyone in the world to get access to the same Internet,” Nikhil Pahwa of Indian news site MediaNama told The New York Times. “The Internet is not just a collection of 130 websites. We don’t want to be forced to make a choice between access and net neutrality.”

Launched last year through Reliance Communications, a local Indian mobile phone provider, Free Basics “makes the Internet accessible to more people by providing them access to a range of free basic services like news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information.” It is a part of Facebook’s initiative.

In response to India’s ban, Mark Zuckerberg posted to his personal Facebook page on Monday. “Connecting India is an important goal we won’t give up on, because more than a billion people in India don’t have access to the Internet,” he wrote. “We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that’s why we’re so committed to connecting them.”

Marc Andreessen, Facebook board member and well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist, waded into the geopolitics of this issue as well, to Zuckerberg’s chagrin. Andreessen, in defending Facebook’s actions in India, claimed on Twitter that Indian authorities were shortsighted. In response, some Twitter users argued that Facebook’s foray into India reflected a “colonial” approach to the matter. Andreessen — in a tweet that has since been deleted — wrote, “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”

You can imagine how well that went over. Facebook quickly responded. “We strongly reject the sentiments expressed by Marc Andreessen last night regarding India,” Facebook said in a statement. Zuckerberg also reacted. “I found the comments deeply upsetting, and they do not represent the way Facebook or I think at all,” he wrote. Andreessen then issued an apology.

What’s interesting about the debate is the degree to which the net neutrality controversy reflects itself in India’s understandable sensitivity to colonialism. I’m not sure Zuckerberg’s attempt to assuage the concerns of the Indian government hits the mark.

“India has been personally important to me and Facebook. Early on in my thinking about our mission, I traveled to India and was inspired by the humanity, spirit, and values of the people. It solidified my understanding that when all people have the power to share their experiences, the entire world will make progress,” he wrote Wednesday. “As our community in India has grown, I've gained a deeper appreciation for the need to understand India's history and culture. I've been inspired by how much progress India has made in building a strong nation and the largest democracy in the world, and I look forward to strengthening my connection to the country.”


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