The following passages are pulled from Rahul Bhatia's in-depth report for the Guardian, The inside story of Facebook’s biggest setback, published May 12. Bhatia details how Facebook palmed off its own platform, which it first called Internet.org then Free Basics, under the guise of bringing internet connectivity to millions of impoverished Indians.
One could make the cynical observation that Facebook was simply working from a tough-minded business model. But it was how Facebook executives portrayed themselves to the Indians as great friends of the downtrodden while practicing bare-knuckled business that stripped the mask from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the company itself.
It was Facebook's over-the-top machinations, rather than opposition, which felled Free Basics. So if you read the entire report you'll be rewarded with a parable about hubris that would make a good warning not only to American business abroad but also the U .S. foreign policy establishment. The catch being that people who are far out of line don't listen to parables.
Within Facebook, the executive said, there existed a strong belief that the crises would pass; the regulator would eventually be pressed to give services such as Free Basics legal sanction and that would end the debate.
After months of foot-dragging, the telecoms regulator – under the influence of a new chairman – decided in November 2015 to hurry up and reach a decision on net neutrality. For the second time in a year, it asked the public to comment, on three specific questions relating to net neutrality and expanding internet access, with a deadline of 30 December.
There was no mention of Facebook or Free Basics. “Facebook did not figure much in the discussions,” a person involved in the telecoms regulator’s deliberations said. Instead, the regulator turned the debate’s glare away from Facebook, and on to the larger subject of net neutrality. By resolving the larger issue, they thought, the Free Basics question would sort itself out.
But Facebook panicked. The company saw the regulator’s public questions as an existential threat, and within a week, Facebook’s marketing and policy teams launched a scorched-earth campaign to rally support.
Every user in India who logged into Facebook was greeted with a special message from Facebook, which said: “Free Basics is a first step to connecting 1 billion Indians to the opportunities online. But without your support, it could be banned in a matter of weeks.”
Below the message, a large purple button invited users to click and “send email” to the regulator. If this was not intrusive enough, many users complained that even if they declined to send the message, merely lingering on the page caused Facebook to send all their friends a notification indicating they had written to the regulator.
Online, outrage at the heavy-handed tactics erupted. “FB just listed an uncle’s account as having signed up to support Free Basics,” one user tweeted. “He passed away two years ago.”
Facebook had succeeded, overwhelmingly, in making the larger ruling on net neutrality about itself. As Pahwa told me: “Facebook came and shoved its ass in our faces.”
Commuters on India’s roads and highways found themselves called upon to support Free Basics from what seemed like thousands of billboards. One pictured a farmer and his family and asked them to support “a better future” for unconnected Indians such as “Ganesh”, who used Free Basics and learned “new farming techniques that doubled his crop yield”. Patriotic Facebook advertisements filled entire pages in Indian newspapers every day.
By the end of the year, the Indian business daily Mint reported that Facebook had spent more than £30m on advertising. “It felt like a tidal wave,” Pahwa recalled.
Two days before the deadline set by the regulator, an editorial by Zuckerberg was published in the Times of India, the country’s largest newspaper. “Critics of free basic internet services should remember that everything we’re doing is about serving people like Ganesh,” he wrote, in reference to the farmer who had featured in Facebook’s ad campaign. Pahwa responded with an op-ed of his own in the same paper.
According to Facebook, 16 million users in India sent messages to the regulator to support Free Basics before the deadline. Swamped with feedback, the regulator used custom-built programs to sift out the original replies. A pattern emerged immediately; the comments in support of Free Basics that Facebook had submitted did not address the questions the regulators had asked. The regulator worried that Free Basics’ supporters were not “making informed decisions” and chastised Facebook for reducing the consultation to a popularity contest.