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#PR: Facebook's 'Waterloo' in India
By: Gerard E. Mayers
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It was recently revealed in the news that India's Telecom Regulatory Authority banned Facebook's Free Basics Internet service. In an article published on LinkedIn Pulse, Vivek Wadhwa, a Fellow at the Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, noted:

“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.”

The article noted that Facebook spent tens of millions of dollars in trying to convince Indian nationals to petition their government, particularly the Telecom Regulatory Authority, to support its ill-conceived program. The idea itself was a good one, but unfortunately it also limited free and total access to the Internet. Wadhwa continued:

“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.”

All this goes to show that a company trying to do business in a new market should first invest its time and money to understand the values, cultural mores, and markets of that new market. This is a good, but costly, lesson for Facebook as well as any social media platform seeking to expand its business.

Wadhwa concluded his piece by offering a way for Facebook and Zuckerberg to save face: “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.”

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About the Author
Gerard E. "Gerry" Mayers writes about PR and other relevant topics for PR professionals. A former PR manager for Sensor Products, Inc. (currently based in Madison, NJ), he lives in Milford, NJ.
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