India is personally very important to the history of our company.” Indeed, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s love affair with India continues. He lost the hoodie, rendered himself unrecognisable in a suit and hugged Narendra Modi during the prime minister’s recent tour of Silicon Valley. Later, he popped up in India, clad in the more familiar baniyan, strutting on the stage at IIT-Delhi. The business case for Zuckerberg’s hugging of India is solid: With 134.5 million users in July, anticipated to balloon to 269.5 million by 2019, this will be Facebook’s largest market. Indians already offer Facebook the largest user base for its subsidiary, WhatsApp. India is important not just to the history but also the future of this company.
There appear to be four principal quarrels with Zuckerberg. First, the initiative will create a digital caste system — those with access to the entire internet and the rest with access only to a walled-in ghetto. Second, when Facebook offers free internet, it has a private motive in mind and will corner the internet, depriving the next billion of its many wonders. Third, Facebook has no skin in the game; it is free-riding off the telcos. Fourth, there are already public policy plans to provide full internet access to those who do not have them.Here is where I believe Zuckerberg is right and his critics are wrong. Consider each of the four principal concerns. First, the real digital caste system is where the 80 per cent are excluded from what the 20 per cent enjoy. Is it better for a society to provide access of some kind to more people, or should a guarantee of the absolute principles of net neutrality come first, regardless of whether it deters private initiative to provide free access? Only 19.2 per cent of India has internet access. This means accepting that even a limited form of access is better than none.