What Facebook Hasn’t Learned from India

Inside of Facebook, there’s lately been discontentment among some of its Indian employees, including those based in Hyderabad and New Delhi.

They’re frustrated with what they see as Facebook’s mishandling of a PR and regulatory mess over Free Basics. That’s the program that gives people access to Facebook, Wikipedia and more than 100 other web services for free. Employees feel that Facebook isn’t a charity, so it shouldn’t pretend to be one when representatives speak to the Indian public about the program. Otherwise it risks a sustained opposition. At the moment, the company’s leadership doesn’t seem to understand this criticism, and it could cause challenges for programs Facebook may push in the future, or if it ever enters the PR minefield of China.

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Today, Facebook’s party line is that its own data and research show that most of the Indian public and Facebook users support Free Basics and only a small group of “elites” are against it. And if the regulator doesn’t rule against Free Basics, then the marketing strategy was a success. But to me and to longtime supporters of Free Basics, the approach was decidedly tone-deaf. And no matter what happens with the regulator, Facebook should learn to be a little more honest about its completely understandable corporate interests. People enjoy getting a bargain when they know what the other side is gaining in return.


Amir Efrati and Satish Polisetti commented on this article.
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There’s little reason Facebook should have stumbled the way it did in debating the merits of Free Basics in public and with the country’s telecom regulator. What it needed was frank talk about what Indians get out of the program and what Facebook gets out of it too.